Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales


Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved.

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The Prioress- Sir Topaz Link

Behold the merry words of the Host to Chaucer

When told was all this miracle, every man

Was sobered so, it was a sight to see;

Until our Host to jest again began,

And for the first time now he looked at me,

And ‘What manner of man are you,’ quoth he.

‘You look as though you seek to start a hare,

For ever on the ground I see you stare.

Come nearer, and look up now merrily!

Attend, sires, and find this man a place!

He in the waist is formed as well as me;

This were a poppet now in her embrace

For any woman small and fair of face!

He seems elvish by his countenance,

For with no one does he make dalliance.

Speak somewhat now, since other folks have said;

Tell us a tale of mirth, and that anon!’

‘Host,’ quoth I, ‘may you be not dismayed:

Of other tales, I’m certain, I know none,

Only a rhyme I learned, in times long gone.’

‘Well, that is fine,’ quoth he, ‘now we shall hear

Some dainty thing, by your face, it would appear.’

Sir Topaz

Here begins Chaucer’s Tale of Topaz

Listen lords, with good intent,

And I will tell, all truly meant,

Of mirth and of solace,

All of a knight fair and pleasant

In battle and in tournament;

His name was Sir Topaz.

Born was he in a far country,

In Flanders, all beyond the sea,

Poperinge was the place.

His father was a man full free,

And lord he was of that country,

By God’s eternal grace.

Sir Topaz was a doughty swain;

White was his face as flour again,

His lips red as the rose.

And his complexion showed a stain,

Of scarlet red, and I’d maintain

He had a seemly nose.

His hair was, as his beard, saffron,

And to his girdle tumbled down;

His shoes Cordovan plain.

Of Bruges was his hose rich brown;

His robe of silken fabric found,

That cost as much again.

He was skilled at hunting deer,

And hawking wildfowl on the mere

With grey goshawk on hand.

And a good archer, never fear;

At wrestling no man was his peer,

When any prize might stand.

Full many a maiden bright in bower,

Pined for him, hour after hour,

That should have been asleep.

But he was chaste, beyond their power,

And sweet as is the bramble-flower

From which the red hips peep.

And it befell, upon a day,

Truthfully, as I truly say,

Sir Topaz took a ride.

He mounted on his steed, a grey,

And in his hand his lance at play,

A long sword by his side.

He spurred through a pleasant forest,

In which lurked there many a beast –

Yea, both buck and hare.

And as he spurred to north and east,

His luck, I tell you, almost ceased

And fate brought sorry care.

There, herbs were springing in the vale,

The liquorice and ginger pale,

And many a clove its offer,

And nutmeg, to improve the ale,

No matter whether fresh or stale,

Or to lay up in coffer.

There all the birds did sing away,

The sparrow-hawk and popinjay,

A joy it was to hear.

The throstle warbled out his lay;

The wood-pigeon on the spray,

She sang full loud and clear.

Sir Topaz fell in love-longing,

Whenever he heard the throstle sing,

Galloped fast as he could.

His fair steed with all his pricking,

Sweated till his flanks were wringing;

His sides were wet with blood.

Sir Topaz then so weary was

From galloping upon soft grass,

So fierce was his courage,

That down he laid him there, alas,

To give his charger some solace,

Where there was good forage.

‘O Saint Mary, benedicitee!

Why is love then so against me

And binds me now so sore?

I dreamed all this night, pardee,

An Elf-Queen shall my lover be,

Stay by me evermore.

An Elf-Queen will I love, like this,

For in this world no woman is

Worthy my mate to make,

In town.

All other women I forsake,

And an Elf-Queen to me shall take,

By dale and by down.’

Into his saddle he climbed anon,

And over stile and stone is gone,

An Elf-Queen for to see;

Till he so long has ridden on

That to a secret place he’s won

The country of Faerie

So wild.

For in that country was there none

That dared to ride to him or come,

Neither wife nor child.

Till there arrived a mighty giant;

His name it was Sir Oliphant,

A perilous man indeed.

He said, ‘Child, by Termagant,

If you be not gone from my haunt,

Anon I slay your steed

With mace.

Here there is the Queen of Faery,

With harp and pipe and hurdy-gurdy,

Dwelling in this place.’

The Knight said: ‘May it prosper me,

For tomorrow I’ll meet with thee,

When I have my armour.

And yet I hope, par ma fay,

That with this lance I here display

You’ll pay for it full sore.

Your maw

I will pierce, and if I may,

Ere it be full prime of day,

Here you will breathe no more.’

Sir Topaz galloped off full fast;

The giant at him stones did cast,

Out of a deadly sling.

But fair escaped this Child Topaz,

Though through God’s grace it was,

And his noble bearing.

(The Second Fit)

Now listen, lordings, to my tale;

Merrier than the nightingale,

Whisperings I will sound,

How Sir Topaz, slim and pale,

Pricking over hill and dale

Is come again to town.

His merry men commanded he

To cheer him there with games and glee,

For he must needs go fight

A giant with dreadful heads three,

For love, and as a votary

Of one that shone full bright.

‘Come, music now that never fails,

And jesters too to tell their tales,

While I am here arming,

Of romances in hidden vales,

Of popes and of cardinals,

And of love and liking.’

They fetch him first the sweet wine,

And in a maple-bowl combine

With royal spicery

Gingerbread that is full fine,

And liquorice, and cumin: vine

And all that’s sugary.

Next his white flesh did appear

Good linen cloth, both fine and sheer,

Breeches and a shirt.

A jacket next the shirt so frail,

And over that a coat of mail,

For fear of piercing hurt.

And over that a fine hauberk,

All wrought close, of Jewish work,

Full strong it was of plate.

And over that his coat-armour,

As white as is the lily flower,

To show his warlike state.

His shield was all of gold so red,

And thereon was a boar’s head,

A carbuncle beside.

And there he swore on ale and bread,

How that the giant would be dead,

Betide what might betide!

His leg-pieces were leather each,

His sword’s sheath was of ivory,

His helm of brass, all bright;

His saddle too in ivory done,

His bridle as the sun it shone,

Or as the full moon’s light.

His spear it was of good cypress,

That spoke of war and not of peace,

The head full sharply ground.

His steed it was a dapple grey;

It ambled gently on the way,

Full softly, all around,

In hand.

Lo, lordings mine, here is a fit!

If you would any more of it,

I’ll tell if it I can.

(The Third Fit)

Now hold your tongues, par charitee,

Both you sir knight, and lady free,

And hearken to my spell,

Of battle and of chivalry,

And wooing too of a lady,

Anon, I will you tell.

Men speak of romances like this,

Of Horn Child, and of Ipotis,

Of Bevis and Sir Guy,

Of Libeus and Pleindamour –

But Sir Topaz, he was the flower

Of royal chivalry!

His charger fine he now bestrode,

And forth upon his way he glowed,

Like sparks from out the flame.

Upon his crest he had a tower,

And stuck therein a lily flower;

God shield his arm from shame!

And since he was a knight errant,

He stayed not in a house, but went

To sleep, wrapped in his hood.

His helmet bright was his pillow,

His warhorse fed, as you will know,

On herbs both fine and good.

He drank water from the well,

As did the knight Sir Perceval,

So worthy neath his coat.

Till on a day –

The Topaz-Melibee Link

Here the Host halts Chaucer in his Tale of Topaz.

‘No more of this, for God’s great dignity!’

Quoth our Host now, ‘since you weary me

With all your tiresome arrant foolishness,

And also, in truth, and God my soul bless,

My ears are aching with your paltry speech!

Rhymes like that the devil himself must teach!

That must be what’s called doggerel,’ quoth he.

‘Why so,’ quoth I, ‘Why then hinder me

More in my tale then any other man? –

Since I give you the best rhyme that I can.’

‘By God,’ quoth he, ‘said plainly, in a word,

Your idle rhyming isn’t worth a turd!

You do nothing else but waste our time.

Sire, in a word, you shall no longer rhyme.

Try some heroic tale, let me suggest,

Or tell something in prose, if that were best,

In which there is some mirth or some doctrine.’

‘Gladly,’ quoth I, then, ‘by God’s sweet pain!

I shall tell you a little thing in prose,

That you may like, or so I would suppose,

Or else, indeed, you’re too fastidious.

It is a moral tale and virtuous,

Although it’s told sometimes in disguise

By sundry folk, as you may realise.

For as you know each Evangelist writes

In telling of the pain of Jesus Christ,

Something different than his fellow does;

And yet his substance is as true for us,

All agree in their essential substance,

Although in telling they reveal a difference.

For some of them say more and some say less,

When they his piteous Passion do express –

I mean by ‘they’, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John –

And yet the substance of their words is one.

Therefore, lordings all, I you beseech,

If the tale, you think, I vary in my speech –

Thus: though I employ a quantity more

Of proverbs than you have heard before

Included in this little treatise here,

To strengthen the effect of my matter –

And though the words are different I say

Than those you’ve heard, yet to you all I pray

Blame me not; for as concerns my substance,

You shall nowhere find any difference

From the substance of the treatise I cite,

After which this merry tale I indite.

And therefore, hearken well to what I say,

And let me tell all of my tale, I pray.’

The Tale of Melibee

Translator’s note: The following extract is provided to illustrate the style of this prose homily or moral debate, of about a thousand lines or so. The principal subject is the question of whether revenge is the right course when harm has been incurred. The content covers the correct attitude to take (the purification of the heart), the identification of sound advice (the avoidance of false friends), whether women are to be trusted (husbands should be directed by their wives), whether revenge is dangerous, justifiable, or expedient in this case, and in parenthesis why God permits evil (the outcome of violence is uncertain. It is better to settle with one’s enemies). The moral outcome is that vengeance belongs to God.

The piece ends with Melibee’s forgiveness of his enemies.

Here begins Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee

A young man called Melibeus, mighty and rich, begat upon his wife, who was called Prudence, a daughter who was called Sophie. One day, it befell that for his sport he went into the fields to play. His wife and daughter he had left in the house, of which the doors were fast shut. Three of his old foes had seen this, and set ladders to the walls of his house, and entered by the windows, and beat his wife and wounded his daughter with five mortal wounds in five sundry places – that is to say, in her feet, in her hands, in her ears, in her nose, and in her mouth – and left her for dead and went away.

When Melibeus returned to his house and saw all this mischief, renting his clothes like a madman, he began to weep and cry. Prudence, his wife, besought him, as much as she dared, to cease his weeping, but nonetheless he wept and cried, ever longer and more. His noble wife, Prudence, remembered a judgement of Ovid’s in his book that is called the Remedy for Love (Remedia Amoris), where he says: ‘He is a fool that disturbs a mother weeping for the death of her child till she has wept her fill for a while, and then shall a man do his best to comfort her with amiable words, and beg her to cease her weeping.’ For which reason, this noble wife Prudence suffered her husband to weep and cry a while, and when she saw her opportunity she spoke to him in this wise: ‘Alas, my lord,’ quoth she, ‘why make yourself foolish? For, truly, it is not fitting for a wise man to show such sorrow. Your daughter, with the grace of God, will recover and escape death. And even if she were dead right now, you ought not to destroy yourself on account of her death. Seneca says: ‘The wise man shall not take too great discomfort on the death of his children, but he should suffer it indeed in patience, as well as he must endure the death of his own person.’

Melibeus answered anon and said: ‘What man,’ quoth he ‘should cease weeping that has so great a cause to weep? Jesus Christ, our Lord, himself wept for the death of Lazarus his friend.’ Prudence answered: ‘Certainly moderate weeping is not forbidden him who is sorrowful, but rather it is granted him to weep. The Apostle Paul unto the Romans writes: “Man shall rejoice with them that make joy, and weep with such folk as weep.” But though moderate weeping is allowed, excessive weeping is indeed forbidden. Moderation should be considered in weeping, according to the rule that Seneca teaches us. “When your friend dies,” quoth he, “let your eyes be not too moist with tears or too dry; although the tears come to your eyes, let them not fall. And when you have lost a friend, endeavour to make another friend; this is wiser than to weep for the friend you have lost, for there is no benefit in that.” And therefore, if you govern yourself with wisdom, put away sorrow out of your heart. Remember that Jesus, son of Sirach, says: “A man that is joyous and glad in heart continues to flourish in his old age, but truly, a sorrowful heart makes his bones dry.” He says also thus, that sorrow at heart slays full many a man. Solomon says, that just as moth in the sheep’s fleece harms the clothes, and the small worms the tree, just so sorrow harms the heart. Wherefore on the death of our children as well as in the loss of our temporal goods we should have patience. Remember the patience of Job, who when he had lost his children and his temporal substance, and in his body received and endured full many a grievous tribulation, yet said he thus: “Our Lord gave, our Lord has taken it from me; as our Lord has willed, so is it done. Blessed be the name of our Lord!”’

At these aforesaid things, Melibeus replied to his wife Prudence: ‘All your words,’ quoth he, ‘are true and therefore profitable, but truly my heart is troubled with this sorrow so grievously that I know what to do.’ ‘Summon all your true friends,’ quoth Prudence, ‘and those of your kindred who are wise’ explain your situation, and hearken to what they say in counsel, and govern yourself according to their judgement. Solomon says: “Work everything by counsel and you shall never repent.”’

Then, by the counsel of his wife Prudence, Melibeus summoned a great congregation of folk, surgeons, physicians, old folk and young, and some of his old enemies, reconciled, apparently, to his love and to his grace. And with them came some of his neighbours, who paid him reverence more from fear than from love, as is often the case. There came also many subtle flatterers, and wise advocates learned in the law. And when these folk were gathered together, Melibeus, in sorrowful wise explained his situation. And by the manner of his speech it seemed that he bore a cruel anger in his heart, ready to wreak vengeance on his foes, and desired that conflict should immediately begin, but nonetheless he still asked counsel upon the matter.

A surgeon, by permission and assent of such as were wise, rose, and spoke to Melibeus as you may now hear: ‘Sire,’ quoth he, ‘it is enjoined on us surgeons that we do the best we can for everyone who employs us, and do no harm to our patients. So that it happens often that when two men have each wounded the other, the same surgeon treats them both. So that, in our art, it is not appropriate to nourish conflict or support any one party. But, as to the treatment of your daughter, even though she be so perilously wounded, we shall be so attentive to the business day and night that with the grace of God she shall be whole and sound as soon as is possible. In almost exactly the same way the physicians answered, save that they said a few words more: that just as maladies are cured by their opposites, so shall men heal conflict by vengeance.

His neighbours, full of envy, his feigned friends who seemed reconciled, and his flatterers, made a semblance of weeping, and worsened and exaggerated the matter, by praising Melibeus greatly for his might, his power, his riches and his friends, despising the power of his adversaries, and saying emphatically that he should anon wreak vengeance on his foes and begin the conflict.

Up rose then an advocate who was wise, by permission and counsel of others who were wise, and said: ‘Lordings, the cause for which we have been assembled in this place is a high and heavy matter, because of the wrong and wickedness that has been done, and by reason of the great harm that in coming time may possibly arise from the same cause, and also by reason of the great riches and power of both parties; for which reason it would be a great peril to err in this matter. Wherefore, Melibeus, this is our opinion: we counsel you above all that right anon you do your best to defend your own person in such a wise that you lack neither spy nor guard, to protect your body. And after that we counsel that in this house you set sufficient garrison so that they can as well your body as your house defend. But, to instigate war, or to wreak sudden vengeance, we cannot in so short a time decide if it were profitable. Wherefore we ask leisure and space to deliberate in this case in order to decide, for the common proverb says thus: “He that judges quickly, shall quickly repent.” And also men say that the judge is wise who understands a matter rapidly, but judges at leisure. For although all delay is irritating, it is never to be reproved in the giving of judgement or in vengeance-taking, when it is sufficient and reasonable, and that our Lord Jesus Christ showed by example. For when the woman that was taken in adultery was brought into his presence to know what should be done with her person, although he knew how he should answer, yet he would not answer instantly, but he wished for deliberation, and he wrote on the ground twice. And for this reason we ask for deliberation, and we shall then by the grace of God advise what shall be profitable.’ Up started then the young folk, at once, and the most part of that company scorned the wise old man, and began to make a noise, and say that since while the iron is hot men should smite, so should men wreak vengeance for their wrongs while they are fresh and new; and in a loud voice they cried: ‘War, war!’

Up rose then one of the old wise men, and with his hand made a sign that men should be still and grant him audience. ‘Lordings,’ quoth he, ‘there is full many a man that cries: “War, war!” that little knows what war involves. War at its inception has so high and wide an entrance, that every man may enter when he likes and easily find war. But, truly, what end shall befall, is not easily known. For truly, when war is once begun, there is many a child yet unborn that shall die young because of that war, or else live in sorrow, and die in wretchedness. And therefore, before any war is begun, men should take counsel and deliberate deeply.’ And when this old man thought to strengthen his point with reason, almost at once they rose to put an end to his speech, and bade him cut short his words, for truly he that preaches to those that listen not to his words, his sermon only annoys. For Jesus son of Sirach says that music with weeping is an irritating thing; that is to say, it is much use to speak to folk who are annoyed by the speech, as it is to sing to those who weep. And when this wise man saw that he lacked an audience, he sat down again in shame. For Solomon says: ‘Where you will find no audience, do not attempt to speak.’ ‘I see, truly,’ quoth this wise man, ‘that the common proverb is true, that good counsel is lacking when it is most needed.’ Yet, in his council, Melibeus had many folk that gave their opinion privately in his ear, and counselled him in a contrary manner to the general audience.

When Melibeus heard that the majority of his council were agreed that he should make war, anon he consented to their opinion, and fully affirmed their judgement. Then Dame Prudence, when she saw her husband planning to wreak vengeance on his foes and to make war, she, when she saw her opportunity, spoke these words to him, most humbly: ‘My lord,’ quoth she, ‘I beseech you as heartily as I can and dare, do not hasten so fast, as you hope to prosper, and give me audience. For Petrus Alfonsi says: “Whoever does to you either good or harm, hasten not to repay it, for in this way your friend will abide, and your enemy live longer in fear.” The proverb says: “He hastens well, who knows how to wait wisely”, and “In wicked haste there is no profit.”’

Melibeus answered his wife Prudence thus: ‘I purpose not, ‘quoth he, ‘to work according to your counsel, for many causes and reasons; everyone would consider me a fool, for certain – that is to say, if I were to change things that have been ordained and affirmed by so many wise men. Secondly I say that all women are wicked, and none of them good, for “Of a thousand men,” says Solomon, “I found one good man, but among all women, good women found I never.” And also, if I attended to your counsel, it would surely seem that I had given you mastery over me, and God forbid that were so! For Jesus of Sirach says that if the wife has mastery, she goes contrary to her husband. And Solomon says: “Never give power over yourself, ever in your life, to your wife, or child, or friend, for it were better that your children asked of you what they needed, than you find yourself in the hands of your children.” And also, if I were to work according to your counsel, my counsel must surely remain secret for some time till it were time that it were known, and this may not be.

For it is written, that women’s talkativeness can hide nothing except what they are ignorant of. Later, the Philosopher says that women overcome men with evil counsel; and for these reasons I must not follow your advice.’

When Dame Prudence, meekly and with great patience, had heard all that her husband wished to say, then she asked permission of him to speak, and spoke thus: ‘My lord,’ quoth she, ‘as to your first reason, it may surely be easily answered; for I say that it is no folly to amend counsel when the matter changes, or else when the matter seems otherwise than before. And moreover, I say that though you have promised and sworn to carry out your enterprise, even though you abandon that same enterprise for a just reason, men should not say therefore that you were a liar and a perjurer. For the book says, that the wise man is no liar if he turns his spirit towards the better outcome. And although your enterprise has been decided and ordained by a great multitude of folk, you need not carry out the decree unless you wish so to do; for the truth of things and the profit are rather found among the few who are wise and full of reason, than the great multitude of folk where every man cries out and chatters what he wishes. Surely such a multitude is not sensible.

And as to the second reason, where you say that all women are wicked, saving your grace, surely you despise all women in this way, and “He who despises all, displeases all”, as says the book. And Seneca says that “Whoever shows sapience no man shall dispraise, but gladly teach the science that he knows without pride or presumption, and such things as he knows not, he shall not be ashamed to learn, and enquire of lesser folk than himself.” And, Sire, that there have been many good women may easily be proved. For indeed, Sire, our Lord Jesus Christ would never have descended to be born of woman if all women were wicked; and then, because of the great virtue there is in women, our Lord Jesus Christ, when he rose from death to life, appeared to a woman rather than to his apostles……………

End of the extract from the Tale of Melibee