Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales


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

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The Manciple’s Prologue

Here follows the Prologue of the Manciple’s Tale

Do you all know where stands a little town

Which everybody calls Bob-Up-and-Down,

Under the Blean, down Canterbury way?

There our Host began to jest and play,

And said: ‘Sires, we’re stuck! Dun’s in the mire!

Is there no man, for prayer or for hire,

Will wake our friend sleeping there behind?

A thief as now might easily rob him blind.

Look at him napping! See how, God’s bones,

He’ll tumble from his horse onto the stones!

Is that the London Cook, cursed mischance?

Make him come forth, and do his penance,

For he shall tell a tale too, by my faith,

Although it’s not worth a barrow of hay.

Awake, thou Cook!’ quoth he, ‘God give you sorrow!

What ails you to sleep this fine morrow?

Did fleas bite you all night? Or are you drunk?

Or had you a harlot all night in your bunk,

So you’ve not the strength to lift your head?’

The Cook, who was full pale and nothing red,

Said to our Host: ‘So God my soul may bless,

There fell upon me such a heaviness –

I know not why – I’d rather have my sleep

Than the best barrel of wine in Westcheap.’

‘Well,’ quoth the Manciple, ‘it it may ease

Your pain, Sir Cook, and no one else displease

That rides among us in this company,

And if our Host agrees, of his courtesy,

I will for now excuse you of your tale.

For in good faith your visage is full pale.

Your eyes are dull as well now, methinks,

And I find your breath full sour it stinks;

It’s obvious that you are indisposed.

By me, for certain, you’d not be proposed!

See how he yawns now, this drunken knight,

As though he would swallow us all aright.

Close your mouth man, by your father’s kin!

The devil from Hell has set his foot therein!

Your cursed breath will soon infect us all.

Fie, stinking swine, to foulness you’ll fall!

Ah, take heed, sires, of this gallant man!

Now, sweet sire, will you joust at the fan?

It looks as if you’re in perfect shape!

I’d say you’re as drunken as an ape,

That’s when men suck wine out with a straw.’

At this speech the Cook grew wrath and raw,

At the Manciple he shook his head full fast

For lack of speech, and off the horse him cast,

Where he lay a-sprawling, till someone took

Him up: this was a fair horseman of a cook!

Alas, he couldn’t hold on by his ladle!

And, ere he was once more in the saddle,

There was much shoving, both to and fro,

To get him up, a deal of care and woe,

So helpless was this sorry pallid ghost.

And to the Manciple then spoke our Host:

‘Because drink has the domination

Of this poor man, by my salvation,

I think but poorly he’d tell his tale.

Whether it’s wine or old or fresh-brewed ale

That he’s drunk, he’s speaking through his nose,

And wheezing hard, and like to have a cold.

He’s more than enough to do right now

To keep him and his horse from the slough;

And if he falls from his horse a time or two,

Then we shall all have enough to do

In lifting of his heavy drunken carcase.

Tell on your tale; he’s nothing to the purpose.

– Yet, Manciple, it’s hardly my advice

To openly reprove him for his vice.

Another day, he will, peradventure,

Reclaim you, and call you to the lure.

I mean, he’ll chatter about little things,

Such as small errors in your reckonings,

All not quite honest, if it came to proof.’

‘What,’ quoth the Manciple, ‘is that the truth!

So might he easily catch me in a snare.

Well now, I’d rather pay him for the mare

He rides on, than have him with me strive.

I’ll not anger him so, as I would thrive!

Whatever I spoke, I said but jesting word.

And know you now I have here in a gourd

A draught of wine, yea, of a ripened grape,

And right anon you’ll see a merry jape.

The Cook must drink thereof, indeed, I say;

On pain of death, he shall not say me nay.’

And certainly, to tell this as it was,

The Cook drank from it fast enough – alas!

What need, since he’d been drunk all the morn?

And when he had tooted on this merry horn,

To the Manciple he gave the gourd again;

And with that drink the Cook was free of pain,

And thanked him, best as he could, and bowed.

Then our Host began to laugh wondrous loud,

And said: ‘I see now, that it’s necessary,

When we go abroad, good drink to carry,

For it will turn all rancour and distress

To peace and love, and many a wrong redress.

O Bacchus, now thus blessed be your name,

That can so make of earnestness a game!

Worship and thanks be to your deity!

Of all that now you’ll get no more of me;

Tell on your tale, sir Manciple, I pray.’

‘Well, sire,’ quoth he, ‘now hark to what I say.’

The Manciple’s Tale

Here begins the Manciple’s Tale of the Crow

When Phoebus had on earth his habitation,

As the ancient books are pleased to mention,

He was the most gallant of bachelors

In all this world, and the best of archers.

He slew Python, the serpent, as he lay

Sleeping on the ground one sunny day.

And many another noble worthy deed

He wrought with his great bow, as men may read.

And every instrument of minstrelsy,

He could play, and sing, that a melody

It was merely to hear his clear voice sound.

In truth, the King of Thebes, Amphion,

Who with his singing walled a city,

Could never sing half so well as he.

And also he was the handsomest man

That is, or was, since all the world began.

What need his noble features to describe?

– For in this world was none so fair alive,

He was filled full, as well, with nobleness,

With honour, and perfect courteousness.

This Phoebus, the flower of chivalry

And noted as well for magnanimity,

To sport himself – and mark his victory

Over Python, so runs the old story –

Was wont to carry in his hand a bow.

Now Phoebus in his house he had a crow,

That in a cage he nurtured many a day,

And taught to speak, as men will teach a jay.

White was this crow as is a snow-white swan,

And counterfeited the speech of every man

Whenever he set out to tell a tale.

And too, in all this world, no nightingale

Could in a hundred thousandth part excel

In singing so wondrous sweet and well.

Now in his house this Phoebus had a wife,

Whom he loved more than his very life,

And night and day he showed his diligence

In pleasing her, and doing her reverence;

Except for the fact that, truth to say,

He was jealous, and in a gilded cage

Would have kept her, and live undeceived.

And so is every man to some degree;

But all in vain, for it avails us naught.

A good wife who’s chaste in deed and thought,

Should not be spied upon, that’s for certain;

And truly it is labour all in vain

To keep watch on a bad one, can’t succeed.

This I hold as foolishness indeed,

To waste labour keeping watch on wives.

– Thus the ancients wrote throughout their lives.

Now to my purpose, as I first began:

This noble Phoebus does the best he can

To please her, thinking to dance attendance,

And that with his courtesy and governance,

No man would eclipse him from her grace.

But, God knows, no man can embrace

With restraints anything that nature

Has naturally implanted in a creature.

Take a bird: imprison him in a cage,

And all your care and your intent engage

On feeding him tenderly with meat and drink,

And every dainty of which you can think,

And keep him there as tidily as you may,

Although his gilded cage be never so gay,

Yet would the bird twenty thousand fold

Prefer his forest, however harsh and cold,

A diet of worms, and other nastiness.

Forever this bird will be about the business

Of escaping from his cage, if he may;

His liberty the bird desires, I say.

Or take a cat, and nurture it well on milk

And tender flesh, and make his bed of silk,

Let him but see a mouse by the wall –

Anon he abandons milk and flesh and all,

And every dainty thing that’s in the house,

Such is his appetite to eat a mouse!

Lo, here has desire its domination,

And appetite banishes discretion.

She-wolves too are of the baser kind:

The coarsest wolf that she may find,

Or least in reputation, will she take,

When the time comes to find a mate.

All these examples are aimed at men

Who prove untrue, in no way at women.

For men have ever a lecherous appetite

On lower things to perform their delight

Than on their wives, be they ever so fair,

Or be they ever so true, and debonair.

Flesh is so fond of novelty – sad mischance! –

Newfangledness finds nothing in the glance

That’s in accord with virtue, for any while.

This Phoebus, who was innocent of guile,

Was deceived, despite that he was comely,

For under him another man had she,

He a man of little reputation,

Not worth Phoebus in comparison.

More is the harm, it happens often so,

From which there comes much harm and woe.

So it befell, when Phoebus was absent,

His wife anon for her cocksman sent.

Her cocksman? Indeed, a knavish speech!

Forgive me the term, I do beseech

Plato, the wise, says this, as you may read:

The word should ever accord with the deed.

If a man would speak rightly of a thing,

The word must be cousin to the doing.

I’m a blunt man, and right thus say I:

There is no difference, to my eye,

Between a wife who is of high degree,

If with her body she dishonest be,

And a poor wench, lower than all this –

If it so be they both do go amiss –

Except that the gentlewoman above,

Will be called his lady, as in love,

But the other who’s a poor woman,

Shall be called his wench or his lemman.

Yet God knows, my own dear brother,

Men lay the one as low as lies the other.

Just as between a usurping tyrant

And an outlaw or a thief arrant,

The same appertains; there’s no difference.

Alexander the Great heard just this sentence:

That because a tyrant has great might,

By force of armies to slay outright,

And burn house and home, and scorch the plain,

Lo he’s a mighty general, men explain;

But the outlaw with a tiny company,

Who may not do as great harm as he,

Nor bring a country to such great mischief,

Men label him an outlaw or a thief.

But as I am unlearned, not textual,

Never a word of texts shall I tell;

I’ll return to the tale that I began.

When Phoebus’ wife had sent for her man,

Anon they wrought their lust to assuage.

The white crow, who hung there in his cage

Beheld the work, but spoke never a word.

But when home was come Phoebus his lord,

The crow sang out: ‘Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!’

What, bird?’ quoth Phoebus, ‘What song sing you?

Were you not wont so merrily to sing

That to my heart it was all rejoicing

To hear your voice? Alas, what song is this?’

‘By God,’ quoth he, I sing naught amiss!

Phoebus, ‘quoth he, ‘for all your worthiness,

For all your beauty and your nobleness,

For all your song and all your minstrelsy,

For all your watching, your eye’s deceived

By a man of little reputation,

One not worth you, in comparison,

Not even worth a gnat, by my life!

For on your bed I saw him have your wife.’

What more do you wish? The crow anon told,

With serious proof and with words bold,

How his wife had indulged in lechery,

Bringing him to great shame and misery,

Said he’d often seen it with his own eyes.

Then Phoebus turned away, his thoughts awry,

And felt his sorrowful heart might break in two;

His bow he bent, and set therein an arrow,

And in his anger then his wife did slay –

That was the outcome: there’s no more to say.

For sorrow he broke his tools of minstrelsy,

His harp and lute, gittern and psaltery,

And then he broke his arrows and his bow.

And after that thus spoke he to the crow:

‘Traitor,’ quoth he, ‘with tongue of scorpion,

You have brought me to my confusion!

Alas that I was born! Would I were dead!

O dear wife, O gem of joy now sped,

Who were to me so constant and so true,

Now you lie dead with face pale of hue,

All guiltless – that I dare swear, of this!

O reckless hand, to strike so far amiss!

O troubled mind! O anger heedless,

Thoughtlessly to smite the guiltless!

O mistrust, full of false suspicion!

Where was your reason and discretion?

O, every man, now, beware of rashness!

Believe nothing without strong witness.

Smite not too soon, ere you know why,

And take thought, with a sober eye,

Ere you indulge in execution,

In anger, born of mere suspicion.

Alas, a thousand folk has reckless ire

Destroyed, and hurled them in the mire!

Alas, of sorrow I’ll perish utterly!’

And to the crow: ‘O, false thief!’ said he,

‘I will repay you now for your false tale.

Once you sang like to the nightingale;

Now shall you, false thief, your song forgo,

And all your white feathers, shall lose also,

Never through all your life shall you speak.

Thus shall we on a traitor vengeance wreak!

You and your offspring ever shall be black,

With no sweet sound shall you answer back,

But ever croak, foretelling storm and rain,

As sign that through you my wife was slain.’

And to the crow he went, and that anon,

And pulled out his white feathers every one,

And made him black, and took away his song,

And his speech too, and out of doors he’s gone

To the devil: that he might take him back.

And for this reason so are all crows black.

Lordings, of this example I you pray,

Beware, and be careful what you say:

And never tell a man, thus, on your life,

That another man has been with his wife.

He will hate you mortally, for certain.

King Solomon, as the clerks explain,

Teaches a man to guard his tongue well –

Though as I said, I am not textual –

Nevertheless, thus taught to me, my dame:

‘My son, think of the crow, in God’s name!

My son, keep your counsel and keep your friend.

A wicked tongue is one the fiend doth send;

My son, against the fiend a man may bless!

My son, God, of his eternal goodness,

Walled the tongue too with lips and teeth,

For a man should be careful what he speaks.

My son, full often by a careless speech

Has many a man been ruined, clerks do teach,

But by saying little, and advisedly,

No man is ruined, speaking generally.

My son, your tongue you should restrain

At all times, except when you take pain

To speak of God in honour and prayer.

The first virtue, son, be you aware,

Is to restrain, and guard well your tongue;

So children learn when they are young.

My son, from much speaking, ill-advised,

Where less speech would have sufficed,

Comes much harm: so I was told and taught.

Too much speaking of sin lacks naught.

Know you not how a reckless tongue serves?

As a sword that slashes about and swerves,

Slicing an arm or two, my son, just so

A tongue severs friendship at a blow.

A chatterer is to God abominable.

Read Solomon, the wise and honourable;

Read David in his Psalms; read Seneca.

My son, speak not at all but be a nodder.

Feign to be deaf, if you but chance to hear

A gossip speaking of some dangerous matter.

The Flemings say – and note it if you please –

That lack of gossip is a source of peace.

My son, if you no wicked speech have made,

You need never fear you’ll be betrayed;

And he that speaks ill, I should explain,

He may never recall his words again.

A thing that’s said is said, and forth it goes,

Though regretted, like as not, I’d suppose.

He is a thrall to one to whom he’s said

Words he now regrets: speak not, instead.

My son: be wary, be not the author new

Of tidings, whether they are false or true.

Wherever you are, among the high or low,

Guard your tongue, and think about the crow.

Here is ended the Manciple’s Tale of the Crow

The Parson’s Prologue

Here follows the Prologue to the Parson’s Tale

With that the Manciple his tale ended,

The sun from the meridian descended

So low that he was no more, to my sight,

Than nine and twenty degrees in height.

Four of the clock it was, or so I guess,

For eleven feet or so, no more no less,

My shadow at that moment lay there,

Marking a foot as if my length were

Of six equal feet, in due proportion;

And the sign of Saturn’s exaltation –

I mean Libra – beginning to ascend,

As we were entering a hamlet’s end.

Upon which our Host, as he was pleased

To govern, as now, our jolly company,

Spoke in this wise: ‘Lordings every one,

Now of tales we lack no more than one.

Fulfilled is my pronouncement and decree;

We’ve had a tale from each in their degree.

Almost fulfilled is all my ordinance.

I pray God brings him what of best may chance,

Who tells this last tale entertainingly!

‘Sir priest,’ quoth he, ‘– a vicar now art thee,

Or a parson? The truth now by your faith! –

Whatever you are, spoil you not our play,

For every man save you has told his tale.

Unbuckle now, and show what’s in your bale,

For truly, your face is of such cheer

You con mighty matter it would appear.

Tell us a fable anon, by cock’s bones!’

The Parson then answered him at once:

‘You’ll get no fable that’s told by me.

For Paul, in writing there to Timothy,

Reproves those who swerve from truthfulness,

Relating fables and such sinfulness.

Why should I sow chaff from my fist,

When I can sow wheat, as I would wish?

So I will say, that if you wish to hear

Of morality and virtuous things here,

And grant me of my speech an audience,

I will gladly do Christ full reverence,

Giving you lawful pleasure, as I can.

But in truth I am a southern man;

I cannot give you “rum, ram, ruf” by letter,

And, God knows, I hold rhyme little better.

Rhyme and alliteration I’ll dispose

With, and tell you a merry tale in prose,

To knit up all this game and make an end.

And Jesus, of his grace, may wit me send

To show you the manner, in this passage

Of that perfect glorious pilgrimage

That’s called Jerusalem the celestial.

And if you all agree, anon I shall

Begin my tale, on which now I pray

Give your opinion; I can no better say.

Yet nonetheless, this meditation

I submit it always for correction

By clerics, for I am not textual.

I take but the moral, trust me well.

Therefore I make this protestation

That what I say may stand correction.’

These words of his we all assented to;

For, it seemed to us, fit thing to do

To end with some virtuous sentence,

And to grant him space and audience.

And bade our Host he should then say

That to tell his tale we did him pray.

Our Host spoke the words for us all:

‘Sir priest,’ quoth he, ‘good luck you befall!

Say what you will, and we will gladly hear.’

And with that he added in manner here:

‘Tell us,’ quoth he,’ all your meditation,

But haste you, for the sun’s in declination.

Be fruitful now in a little space,

And to tell it well God send you grace.’

The Parson’s Tale

Translator’s note: The following extract is provided to illustrate the style of this lengthy prose sermon on the right preparation for Confession, and the nature of the Seven Deadly Sins. The sermon discusses Penitence and Contrition, and then the seven sins. Freely willed Confession leads to Satisfaction in alms-giving, penance, fasting and bodily pain. Its fruit is heavenly bliss.

Here begins the Parson’s Tale

State super vias et videte et interrogate de viis antiquis que sit via bona et ambulate in ea et invenietis refrigerium animabus vestris…

Jeremiah 6:16

Our sweet lord God of Heaven, in order that no man shall perish, and that we all come to knowledge of Him and the blissful life everlasting, admonishes us through the prophet Jeremiah in this wise: ‘Stand in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein and you shall find rest for your souls…’ many are the spiritual ways that lead folk to our lord Jesus Christ and to the reign of glory; of which ways, there is a full noble and fitting way, which may not fail man or woman who through sin has wandered from the true way of Jerusalem celestial, and this way is called penitence, of which man should gladly hearken and enquire with all his heart, to whit what is penitence, and whence it is called penitence, and of how many kinds are the actions and workings of penitence, and how many sorts of penitence there are, and what things appertain and are fitting to penitence and what things disturb penitence.

Saint Ambrose says that penitence is the wailing of man over the guilt he has done, and the resolution that he will no longer do anything that he may lament. And some Doctor said: ‘Penitence is the lamentation of a man that sorrows for his sin and pines for his misdeeds.’ Penitence, in given circumstances, is the true repentance of a man who is in sorrow and pain for his guilt; and in order that he shall be truly penitent, he must first bewail the sins he has committed, and resolve steadfastly in his heart to confess verbally and give satisfaction, and never do anything more that he may bewail or lament, and to continue in good works, or else his repentance is of no avail. For as Saint Isidore says: ‘he is a trifler and an idle talker and no true penitent, who again does things which he must repent.’ Weeping without ceasing from sin is of no avail. Yet, nonetheless, men may hope that every time man falls, be it ever so often, he may arise through penitence, if he has grace, but certainly there is great doubt; for, as says Saint Gregory, he arises only with difficulty from his sin who is charged with the charge of evil usage. And therefore repentant folk, who cease from sin, and renounce sin before sin renounces them, Holy Church holds them more secure of their salvation. And he that sins and truly repents him at the last, Holy Church yet hopes for his salvation, through the great mercy of our lord Jesus Christ, for his repentance; yet take the safer way…….

Chaucer’s Retraction

Here taketh the maker leave of his book

Now I pray all those that hearken to this little treatise or read, that if there be anything in it that pleases them, they thank Our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom proceeds all wit and all goodness. And if there be anything that displeases them, I pray them also to blame it upon my lack of skill, who would full gladly have spoken better if I had that skill. For our Book says: ‘all that is written is written for our doctrine,’ and that is my intent. Wherefore I beseech you meekly, for the mercy of God, that you pay for me, that Christ may have mercy upon me and forgive me my sins; and namely for my translations and writing on worldly vanities, which I revoke in my retraction: as are the Book of Troilus, the Book also of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, the Book of the Duchess; the Book of Saint Valentine’s Day of the Parliament of Fowls, The Tales of Canterbury, those conducive to sin, the Book of the Lion; and many another book, if they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a lecherous lay; that Christ in his great mercy may forgive me the sin.

But the translation of Boethius’ De Consolatione, and other books of legends of Saints, and homilies and morality and devotion, for them I thank Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Blissful Mother, and all the Saints of Heaven; beseeching them that they from henceforth unto my life’s end send me grace to bewail my sins, and to study the salvation of my soul, and grant me the grace of true penitence, confession and satisfaction, to perform in this present life, through the benign grace of Him that is King of kings and Priest over all priests, who bought us with the precious blood of His heart, so that I may be one of those at the day of doom that shall be saved. Qui cum patre etc.

Here is ended the book of the Tales of Canterbury compiled by Geoffrey Chaucer, on whose soul Jesus Christ have mercy. Amen.