Chaucer's Tale of Melibee

and the allegory of the castle of the body

The body as a castle or edifice, the dwelling of the soul, has a tradition that dates as far back as Philo Judaeus (d. 40). The most often cited medieval examples of this allegory are from the writings of Anselm, St. Bernard, and Hugh of St. Victor. Bernard adopted the motif in Sermon 2, On the Assumption of the Virgin in which he was interpreting Luke 10:38 ("Intravit [Jesus] in quoddam castellum"). Bernard interprets the castle as the womb of the Virgin mother, or "castellum, " into which Jesus entered, symbolizing the Incarnation. Later in the same sermon, Bernard also describes his own experience in terms of the castle metaphor, describing how his "castle" or soul had been conquered by the devil who had taken control of all his members and destroyed the walls of Continence and Patience. The theme was popularized by Archbiship Ralph d'Escures of Canterbury (1114-22) in a sermon which was translated into English in the early twelfth century. Thereafter it appears in numerous sermons as well as vernacular didactic literature such as Robert Grosseteste's Le Chasteau d'Amour, the thirteenth century homily Sawles Warde, and in Piers Plowman. In Sawles Warde, the four cardinal virtues are the guardians of the castle (strength, temperance, justice, prudence) with the Constable being Wit or Intelligence, and, like Melibee, the huselouerd or householder is separate from the Castle itself.

As scholars have pointed out, Chaucer's use of the allegory in Melibee is imperfect, because on the one hand, the castle represents the human body, the seat of the soul, which is penetrated by sin through the portals of the senses. Melibee is a man blessed with material goods who gives himself up to pleasure and finds that his three old foes, (the flesh, the fiend, and the world) enter his house and beat his wife Prudence and wound his daughter Sophia with five mortal wounds (the five senses) in five places: feet, hands, ears, nose, mouth. In this sense, the allegory offers a model for understanding the effects of sin and a strategy for resisting temptation by close surveillance of the senses. Man's body is a castle which houses and protects its inhabitant, the soul, who is constantly attacked by his enemies (the fiend, the flesh, and the world) who seek to wound the soul to death by penetrating the castle through its windows, the senses. Such warnings were commonplace in religious didactic literature. The Ancrene Riwle, a twelfth century religious didactic work written for the moral instruction of two young sisters who were contemplating a religious career suggests practical ways of resisting sin by controlling sight and hearing as well as touching. [fol. 11v, l. 11, H46] [from Cotton Vitellius F.vii:] "Ore pur ceo, toutes les ouertures de toutes uoz fenestres, ausi come ci deuant a la uewe de touz hommes unt este closes, ausi soient ca en apres. Et si plus fermement poient, plus fermement soient closes. Generale reule est, toutes celes qe bien les closent, Dieu bien les garde" (edited by Robert Hasenfratz, available online at

(Now, just as all the openings of all your windows have been closed up till now to the view of men, let them also be closed in the future. And as strongly as possible may they remain closed. A general rule is, all of those who close them well will be well guarded by God.)

On the other, however, the allegory treats the assault on Melibee's house as if it were an external aggression, and this part of the Melibee is concerned with the legalistic question of justice and mercy, a question of great interest to specialists in canon and common law alike. This interpretation of the allegory raises the question of the legitimacy of private warfare (which, in England, unlike France, had been forbidden since the reign of William I) and the problem of reconciling justice with mercy. As someone who has suffered an aggression, Melibee must decide whether or not to rely on his wealth, strength, and fortune to launch a counter-attack against his enemies or resort to the law for justice. He must also decide how to seek advice in reaching a decision.

The question of counsel.

The process of seeking and evaluating counsel received extensive theoretical and literary treatment in post-Conquest England. The obligation of the king to seek and accept wise counsel was a main theme of philosophers, historians, and lawyers. In the first complex elaboration of political theory the Policraticus written by the extremely influential theoretician of the secular state, John of Salisbury placed great importance on the obligation of the king to seek and accept counsel from the Church to assure that his rule accorded with higher law. Although he did not consider the prince subject to human law, John viewed the prince as empowered to rule by God but deriving his legitimacy from the consent of the governed. John of Salisbury dedicated much space to the relationship between good government and wise counsel. The difficulty of translating Divine law into enacted law requires that government be grounded in a tradition of Scriptural study and interpretation: thus the strong desirability that the prince be a scholar and philosopher, or at least counseled by scholars and philosophers. "From which it is crystal clear how necessary is a knowledge of letters to princes who are thus commanded to turn over the law of God in daily reading" (28). If it should chance that in special circumstance and for other acknowledged virtues the prince should happen to be illiterate he must rely on the counsel of wise men of letters, especially priests, the wise and learned clergy who assume a vital role in the conduct of the government. "Therefore let him have at his side men like the prophet Nathan, and the priest Sadoch, and the faithful sons of the prophets, who will not suffer him to turn aside from the law of God. . . Thus let the mind of the prince read through the medium of the priest's tongue, and whatever of excellence he sees in their lives, let him revere it as the law of the Lord. For the life and tongue of priests are like a book of life before the face of peoples" (28).

The question of good and bad counsel was also a question of topical actuality in the reign of Richard II and one that led directly to his downfall. Richard's reign was plagued by strife between rival factions who sought the king's ear. Early in his reign, Richard's powerful uncles and their relatives opposed a palace faction of counselors whom they said gave the king bad advice, and, on this excuse, led a movement to expel them from the king's presence and ultimately kill most of them through the so-called Merciless Parliament of 1386, replacing them with a governing council made up of those loyal to Richard's uncles. Later in his reign, Richard again substituted counselors of bourgeois extraction for the advice of his uncle Gloucester and his faction, and the charge that the king surrounded himself with flatterers and sycophants was one of the accusations made against Richard in his deposition. Although Chaucer's source for the Melibee, which he followed closely was first written long before Richard's reign, the problems Melibee faced were topical enough.

After the aggression against his castle, Melibee calls together a group who include surgeons, physicians, old folk and young, some of his old enemies, some who fear him, and some who are flatterers. In the way he tells the story, it is obvious that he wants revenge. Melibee notes that many people tell him one thing in private and another publicly. He notes that most people advise war, and he accepts.

Prudence tells Melibee how he should have proceeded to choose his counselors:

1: Ask God to be your counselor

Take counsel within yourself after you have driven out ire, coveitise, and haste. When you have done this, do not reveal your opinion to anyone.

2. Call your true friends and make sure they are wise and of a mature age.

3. Eschew the advice of fools, flatterers, drunkards, wicked folk, and former enemies with whom you have been reconciled.

Prudence tells Melibee of his mistakes:

1. You called too many people.

2. You called people you don't know well, young people, flatterers, etc.

3. You brought with you ire, envy, and hastiness in your heart.

4. You let your advisors know what your own opinion was.

5. You didn't separate the advice of your true, old friends from that of the others.

Prudence also tells Melibee that he ought to examine the advice he has received. The doctors were right and ought to be rewarded for their good advice. Prudence asks Melibee how he interpreted their advice that an evil is cured by its opposite. Melibee says that he understood it to mean that he should do to his enemies what they have done to him. Prudence explains that their advice meant exactly the opposite, that hate is cured by love, war is cured by peace, etc. This is also the structure for the Parson's sermon, in which each of the seven deadly sins is cured by its opposite: pride by humility, anger by patience, gluttony by abstinence, etc. Prudence next asks Melibee how he interpreted the lawyer's advice to guard his house. Melibee says that he should have towers and fortifications. Prudence replies that the best defense anyone can have is the love of neighbors and subjects.

The question of justice and mercy:

The necessity of reconciling justice with mercy was also a popular medieval theme, often associated with the tradition of the four daughters of God: peace, justice, mercy, and righteousness. In the Policraticus, John of Salisbury warns that "He shall not incline to the right hand nor to the left" (Bk. iv., c. 9) by which he means that justice must be tempered with mercy so as to combine the two and promote the advantage of the commonwealth. The force of these concepts is indicated by the articles of deposition issued by Parliament against Richard II in 1399. Besides certain specific charges, Richard was accused of having exchanged misericordia for extreme severity, refusing to submit himself to the laws or accept counsel, but instead being guided by his sole will, sue inepte & illicite voluntatis arbitrium. (See Margaret Schlauch, "Chaucer's Doctrine of Kings and Tyrants," Speculum 20 [1945], 155.

Melibee argues that if noone ever takes revenge for evils done to him then people won't be afraid to commit crimes. Prudence replies that only a judge, not a private person, can punish wrong, and a judge sins if he fails to punish wrong. She advises Melibee to have recourse to the appointed judge who will punish them according to the law.

Melibee prefers to rely on Fortune, who befriended him in his childhood and aided him in times of difficulty, and take matters into his own hands. Prudence tries to dissuade him from appeals to Fortune and suggests that if he refuses justice according to the law before a judge, then he must have recourse to the sovereign judge who avenges all wrongs, by which she means God..

Melibee says that if he does not punish those who have offended him, then he invites others to do likewise. Prudence agrees that too much tolerance encourages evil, but she insists that the punishment of evildoing belongs to judges, not individuals.

Prudence invites Melibee to reflect on the consequences of his actions. "Even if you had strength and licence to do vengeance, there are many reasons that should dissuade you. First, God gave you this tribulation because of your own faults. Next, take Christ as your model of patience. The word "pacience" occurs in this sor passage 9 times.

Melibee concedes that patience is a great virtue, but argues, like the Wife of Bath, that not every man may attain perfection. He also admits that he may run some danger by avenging one crime by committing another.

Prudence refuses to accept any excuses and insists that wrong can only be punished by the law and not by private vengeance. She also distinguishes self-defense from revenge.

Melibee insists that he has the right to be angry and sees no harm that can come to him from claiming vengeance, since he is richer and more powerful than his enemies. He is here trusting to Fortune again.

On wealth

Prudence advises him to consider a) that he might lose his money and b) how best to employ his wealth, which can be put to good purpose if it is well gotten and well used. Wealth must be accumulated without great desire and slowly, over time. It must be earned by intelligence and by work without doing wrong or harm to another and without falling into idleness. He must use his wealth without being over-generous or too stingy.

On what constitutes a just war

Prudence then advises Melibee not to begin a war trusting in riches. She says that victory lies in a man's virtue not in great number or multitude of people, but in the hand of God. Since no man can be certain that he is worthy of the love of God, he should hesitate to begin a war.

Melibee at last asks her advice, and she advises him to make peace with his adversaries. Melibee answers that his enemies don't want peace and that his honor requires war.

Prudence advises him first to make peace with God, but Melibee answers that he cannot because he is angry. Prudence repeats her admonition that he suffered punishment because of his own sins. Here Prudence finally convinces Melibee to be ruled by mercy. After the enemies give themselves up to the judgement of Prudence, she persuades Melibee to pardon them completely as a token of God's mercy to mankind. "For doutelees, if we be sory and repentant of the synnes and giltes which we han trespassed in the sighte of oure Lord God, he is so free and so merciable that he wole foryeven us our giltes and bryngen us to the blisse that nevere hath ende."

Click here to return to the index of Jane Zatta's Chaucer Web Site