The Monk's Tale

Critical acclaim of the Monk's Tale has not been overwhelming. R. K. Root (The Poetry of Chaucer [Boston and New York, 1906], 207-208) declared the tragedies "intolerable" and objected to their "unspeakable monotony," "dry epitomizing character," and "inevitably recurring moral." Most critics would agree with Donald Fry,( "The Ending of the Monk's Tale," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 71 [1972], 355) who says that "the tale itself seems to be an artistic failure, dreary, and formless." The critical problems presented by the Monk's Tale are numerous, including Chaucer's views on the nature of tragedy, the Monk's status as a Boethian exegete, the relationship between the description of the Monk in the General Prologue and the Tale, and Chaucer's relation to his sources, particularly to Dante The tale has generally been regarded as a philosophical and artistic failure, although various attempts have been made to justify the shortcomings of the Monk both as an intellectual and a cleric. Paul Beichener sees the Monk as a practical and competent business administrator whom Chaucer has humanized by his failings and Douglas Lepley has defended the Boethian interpretation of the Monk. Edward Socola has argued that the ordering principle linking the stories is a progressive personalization of the character of Fortune from the first three stories, where Fortune is not mentioned, through the next eight, where Fortune is an abstraction, to the last six, where Fortune is given a more personalized characterization and many individualizing qualities. Although the attempts to rehabilitate the intellectual and moral character of the Monk are on the whole forced and unconvincing, the alternate reading - that Chaucer intended to satirize the Monk - also seems insufficient to explain the purpose of The Monk's Tale within the economy of The Canterbury Tales as a whole.

In The Canterbury Tales and the Good Society, Paul Olson has offered an interesting new perspective on The Canterbury Tales by suggesting that the Tales exploit the conventions of the estates satire in order to present a complexly articulated vision of the ideal society in terms of the topical issues of the day. The design of the Canterbury Tales is, in Olson's words, aimed at wooing the reader or listener "toward a royalist but anti-absolutist (pro- parliamentary) position in domestic policy and an 'Order of the Passion' position in foreign policy, toward a Wycliffite analysis of Church abuses and an anti-Wycliffite analysis of the remedies for those abuses. To put it in another way, Chaucer makes the temporal ruler directly dependent on God and nature without clerical intermediary, but he makes the quality of his rule depend, like that of every other person, on inner perfection" (46). The subjects of the tales and the identity of the tellers are determined by the twofold nature of the medieval conception of natural law that finds the hierarchical political organization of the estates within the state reflected in the moral hierarchy of virtues that organize the individual. Within the framework of this specular image of individual and social ontology, Olson believes The Parson's Tale constitutes a link between two ladders of law, royal and ecclesiastical, that organize and inform the structure of the Canterbury Tales.

The Monk's Tale also interweaves ecclesiastical law (through the function of its narrator and the allusions to Boethian philosophy) and royal law (through the subject matter of the tales themselves), and I suggest that The Monk's Tale is an anthology of tyrants meant to provide a commentary on the struggles of the English monarchy following 1386. The hunting Monk himself suggests Nimrod, the "mighty hunter before the Lord" which medieval convention, following Augustine, held to be the prototype of a tyrant. It is of course  impossible finally to know whether the Monk's Tale refers to specific historical events, both because of the uncertainty of the dating of the Monk's Tale and because the types of abuses committed by the Appellants' Council and the Merciless Parliament were repeated by Richard in 1397. When we remember that in the Middle Ages, tyranny was a concept that applied not just to a king, but to any person or group of persons holding power over others, this uncertainty is increased. However, a number of the issues raised by the Monk's tales were particularly prominent in the final years of Richard's reign when the subject of tyranny was certainly topical. The decade leading up to the deposition and death of Richard II was one of social turmoil, characterized by conflict between Richard and the Appellants, by the social attrition caused by the expenses of chronic warfare, by a monarchy plagued by debt, by a government held hostage to rival factions within the family of Edward III, by social unrest caused by burdensome taxation and the costs of an extravagant court. The Monk's Tale, like the Parson's, reflects the concept of sin defined ontologically as disorder, and in complement to the Parson's private, penitential perspective, The Monk's Tale considers the social and political implications of sin as disorder.

The traditional figure of the tyrant

In order to understand the associations which the Monk's Tale would have evoked for Chaucer's audience, it is necessary to recall the theoretical context in which fourteenth century ideas about government and tyranny evolved. In considering the nature of tyranny, the English could look back over the debate which occupied much of Europe from the end of the feudal period to the first decades of the fourteenth century. Although highly theoretical in character, grounded in biblical and classical exempla, the twelfth and thirteenth century discussions of natural law formed the medieval ideal of monarchy and the language and concepts which would define the nature of tyranny and the ideals of monarchy well past the age of Chaucer. In the course of this debate, an extremely stable set of commonplace ideas regarding the ideal of monarchy and the nature of tyranny was established, ideals expressed in language which was itself also to a large extent fixed and commonplace. In addition, it is necessary to remember that not just monarchs, but any individual who held power over another could be guilty of tyranny. A traditional and easily recognizable figure of the tyrant consolidated by more than two centuries of debate regarding the nature of monarchy, fixed in conventional language and usually illustrated through classical or Biblical exempla was thus Chaucer's heritage. The two key criteria for distinguishing a legitimate ruler from a tyrant are expressed in terms of the "common good" (Chaucer's "commune profit") and respect of higher law, from whence derive a limited number of precise behavioral descriptors defining both the prince and the tyrant. The aims of the tyrant are the reverse of those of the prince. Tyrants seek bonum proprium and bonum delectabile over the bonum commune and bonum honorificum; they value riches and glory; they are violent, proud, intemperate, and treacherous; they impose heresy; they seek war rather than peace. All of the Monk's heroes appear as examples of tyrants in literary sources.

The Monk's Tyrants:


Lucifer, whose high pride and will to dominion caused him to to rebel against God's rule, was traditionally considered the archtype of the tyrant. A commonplace conception of governments held the true prince to be the image of God and the tyrant to be the model of Lucifer. "Hence the prince is a kind of likeness of divinity; and the tyrant, on the contrary, a likeness of the boldness of the Adversary, even of the wickedness of Lucifer, imitating him that sought to build his throne to the north and make himself like unto the most High with the exception of his goodness. . . The prince, as the likeness of the Deity, is to be loved, worshiped and cherished; the tyrant, the likeness of wickedness, is generally to be even killed." (John of Salisbury, Bk. VIII, ch, 17, p. 135-6).


As is known, the fall of Adam is considered by Augustine to be the origin of servitude and government. Adam's fall translates to a human level the political ontology of sin conceived of as a subversion of Divine order symbolized by Lucifer's revolt against God, as the Parson explains. Just as God gives rise to eternal law from whence issues divine law and natural law, so in man God rules over reason that rules over sensuality that rules over the body. In sin, sensuality rebels against reason which loses lordship over sensuality and the body. The tyrant's characteristic pursuit of "delit" represents the disorder resulting from the rebellion of sensuality against reason. Eve, who represents sensuality, is tempted by the tree which the serpent shows her, "fair to the eyen, and delitable to the sighte." Thus original sin is the overthrow of reason, represented by Adam, by sensuality, as the Parson explains.

"There may ye seen that deedly synne hat, first, suggeston of the feend, as shewethy heere by the naddre; and afterward, the delit of the flessh, as sheweth heere by Eve; and after that, the consentynge of resoun, as sheweth here by Adam. For trust wel, through so were that the feend tempted Eve - that is to seyn, the flessh - and the flessh hadde delit in the beautee of the fruyt defended, yet certes, til that resoun - that is to seyn, Adam - consented to the etynge of the fruyt, yet stood he in th'estaat of innocence" (The Parson's Tale, 330-331).
Adam is twice referred to in the Monk's brief account in terms of governance: Adam once "welte al paradys savynge of o tree" (l. 2011) and was driven out of paradise "for mysgovernance" or the inability of reason to govern sensuality and the body.


Rubens, "Samson and Delilah," The National Gallery, London

The idea of a tyrant as slave to an ungovernable sexuality, often symbolized by his subjection to a strong woman as in the case of Samson or Hercules, is a commonplace in the iconography of tyrants. Samson is an ideal knight in some respects, renowned for his strength but paradoxically too weak to control his own lust, as the Monk's numerous references to Samson's "wyves" makes clear, and as the Monk explains in his account of Samson's downfall: "For wommen shal hym bryngen to meschaunce" (l. 2062). Samson betrayed himself to a woman twice, and his slaughter of the Philistines ("A thousand men he slow eek with his hond," l. 2037), which originated in concupiscence, was motivated by ire and desire for vengeance after the betrayal of his first wife who had revealed his council to his enemies and then forsaken him for another man. Samson's ill-advised submission to the desires of his "lemman" Dalida, a repetition of the betrayal by his first wife, results in bondage and blindness, conventional images of passion (Kolve). Samson is used as an example of war made for ire by the cleric in Le Songe du Vergier in his discussion of the illegality of war.


Like Samson with whom he was often confused because of his great strength, Hercules was also considered a slave to lust. This is in fact the role he plays in Lydgate's The Fall of Princes (ll. 5162-5201), in which he serves as a penitential model to warn the readers against enslavement to lust. Hercules also symbolized the vulnerability of great strength to subjection by lust, and his death at the hands of Dianira recalls the Parson's comment that "For ther as the womman hath the maistrie, she maketh to muche disray" (926).


A Domenican teaches a prince, pointing to God in majesty above and Nebucadnezzar among the beasts below.

From the Petetes Heures de Jean de Berry. Biblioteque National de France, BNF, LAT 18014, fol. 9v

A number of the tales denounce profligate or corrupt secular rulers who attempt to interfere with the authority or possessions of the church, in violation of one of the principle roles assigned to the temporal ruler in the Augustinian view of government that the Parson expounds: "Certes, the swerd newe dubbed, signifieth that he sholde deffenden hooly chirche, and nat robben it ne pilen it; and whoso dooth is traitour to Crist" (766). Such issues were highly topical in late fourteenth century England in which Wyclif, supported by John of Gaunt, was suggesting to a state far gone in debt that it would be justified in appropriating monastic property. Nebuchadnezzar, an archtypical tyrant mentioned by John of Salisbury, ignores the common good, rules by oppression, and seeks wealth as well as "glorie and delit." He is an example of a tyrant who interferes with the church and corrupts religion. His sovereign see is Babylon, which connects him to Nimrod, the originator of tyranny. By ordering the worship of a golden statue, he commits the worst possible violation against the higher law it is the monarch's duty to protect. As punishment he is turned into a beast, the literalization of the metaphor that every tyrant who subverts reason becomes a beast. Mentioned by the Parson as an example of true penitance, he is forgiven and recovers his former state, although the Monk's telling of the story indicates he fails to perceive clearly the reason for his restitution to dignity.

Rembrandt, "Belshazzar's Feast,"
The National Gallery, London


Like his father, Balthazar is guilty of plundering the possessions of the church and the pursuit of vainglory and "delit." "For proud he was of herte and of array/ and eek an ydolastre was he ay" ll. 2186-7). The Monk's definition of Balthazar as an idolater is glossed by the Parson, who explains that avarice wrongs Christ because "it bireveth hym the love that men to hym owen, and turneth it bakward agayns all resoun." "Thus is an avaricious man, that loveth his tresor biforn God, and ydolastre," (751). Moreover he conducts a notoriously corrupt court: "Hys wyf, his lordes, and his concubynes /Ay drunken, whil hire appetites laste/ Out of thise vessels sondry wines" (ll. 2199-220).


Like Nebuchadnezzar, Holofernes, and Balthazar, Antiochus too is guilty of unjustified interference in the affairs of the church. John of Salisbury (who, we will recall, was secretary to Thomas Beckett whose shrine is the destination of the Canterbury pilgrims, a cleric who resisted temporal interference in the affairs of the church)compares the behaviour of Antiochus, (Bk. viii., c. 22) who entered the sanctuary of the temple with pride and haughtiness that he might destroy whatever was holy, to the banishment of Roman laws under King Stephen. He is also a cruel ruler who rules by conquest and oppression rather than law. Chaucer's description underlines his dedication to wealth and worldly goods ("his hye roial magestee" l. 2576), his pride and cruelty ("His hye pride, his werkes venymus" l. 2577), his oppression of the Israelites and his desecration of the temple ("this robbour and this homycide" l. 2628).


(Judith and Holofernes's head, the Sistine Chapel)

Holofernes is mentioned as a tyrant by John of Salisbury, in his justification of tyrannicide. "This story shows that even priests of God repute the killing of tyrants as a pius act, and if it appears to wear the semblance of treachery, they say that it is consecrated to the Lord by a holy mystery. Thus Holofernes fell a victim not to the valor of the enemy but to his own vices by means of a sword in the hands of a woman; and he who had been terrible to strong men was vanquished by luxury and drink, and slain by a woman" (VIII, ch. 20 p. 371).


Nero is a familiar, classical example of a tyrant, mentioned as such by John of Salisbury, who describes his "lust," "avarice," "cruelty," and "extravagance," (Bk. viii., c. 18), as well as by Boethius. Described as incestuous, a fratricide and matricide, Nero is the epitome of the morally corrupt ruler. The Monk's accounts of both Holofernus and Nero unwittingly emphasize the connection between the corrupt moral order of the monarch, represented by the subjection of reason to lust, and the disordered state. Chaucer's description of the end of Nero's reign: his destruction of the state, the rebellion of the people, and Nero's attempt to seek help from his allies only to discover they had deserted him parallels the end of the reign of Richard II in many respects. Holinshed reports: ". . . likewise many of the magistrates and rulers of the cities, towns, and commonalty here in England, perceiving daily how the realm drew to utter ruin, not like to be recovered to the former state of wealth whilst King Richard lived and reigned (as they took it), devised with great deliberation and considerate advice to send and signify by letters unto Duke Henry, whom they now called (as he was indeed) Duke of Lancaster and Hereford, requiring him with all convenient speed to convey himself into England, promising him all their aid and power, and addistance if he, expelling King Richard as a man not meet for the office he bare, would take upon him the scepter, rule, and diadem of his native land" (130). Likewise the Monk's telling remark about Nero, that "His lustes were al lawe in his decree" (l. 2477), refers to the traditional distinction between tyranny, characterized by rule according to the sole will of the prince and rule in accordance with the law. This was in fact one of the charges that would be brought against Richard II, said to have declared that he carried the laws in his own breast. Article 33 of the Acts of Deposition charged that, contrary to law and custom, everyone's life, goods, and chattels were at the king's arbitrary will and that the king had declared the laws to be in his own breast and that he alone could change and establish the laws of his kingdom.


In an interesting reversal of the situation of Samson and Hercules, Cenobia, who is also an ideal ruler in some respects, refuses even the legitimate intimacy of her husband except for the express purpose of producing offspring. ("for thus she seyde;/ It was to wyves lecherie and shame, / In oother caas, if that men with hem pleyde" ll. 2294-2295). She is also dedicated to learning, particularly to the study of languages, perhaps an allusion to Nimrod. On the other hand, she is characterized by her love of rich array, both in clothing and vessels, and her propensity for warfare, pride, and cruelty. She is a ruler who governs not by title but by conquest. Her conquest by slaughter ("Lest that she wolde hem with hir handes slen" l.2341) compares her hunt of beasts to her hunt of men. The contrast between her imperial array and final humiliation by yet another conqueror recall the Parson's distinction between the morally ordered state, ranked according to the different estates and finalized towards mutual service and subjection by conquest. "And forther over, understoond wel that thise conquerours or tirauntz maken ful ofte thralles of hem that been born of as roial blood as been they that hem conqueren." Although Chaucer's source for the account of Cenobia was Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris, Cenobia's story was also told by Trebillius Pollio who lived under Constantine in cap. xxix of Triginta Tyranni ("Thirty Tyrants"). As Skeat noted, her defeat was a result of her ambition. "Her ambition tempted her to endeavor to make herself the queen of the East, instead of remaining merely Queen of Palmyra."


Alexander also is an example of the illegitimacy of rule by conquest. In Bk. iii., c. 14 of the Policraticus, John of Salisbury, relates an anecdote about Alexander that Chaucer repeats in the Manciple's Tale. One day Alexander interrogated a pirate who had been taken character, inquiring why he made the seas unsafe. The pirate responded "That which caused you to do the same on land. But whereas I do it with one ship I am called a pirate; you, because you do it with a large fleet, are called an emperor." Chaucer refers to this incident in the Manciple's Tale, where he labels Alexander a tyrant. Alexander is a "conqueror;" he rules people whom he "conquered, and broghte hem into wo" (l. 2649); he is given to "wyn and wommen" (l. 2644); he is a destroyer of men and beasts: "The pride of man and beest he leyde adoun / Wherso he cam, unto the worldes ende" (ll. 2637-2638). Alexander, who is described as a hunter in the Policraticus, (Bk. i., c. 4) is linked to animals through his "leonyn courage" also.


Caesar is also described as a conqueror "That wan al th'occident by land and see / By strength of hand" (2674-2675). Although John of Salisbury praises Caesar, he classifies him as a tyrant because he "seized the commonwealth by arms." However, he condemns his assassination by Brutus because Brutus was allied to Caesar by an oath of loyalty. According to John, tyrannicide constitutes treason if it is carried out by a person linked by oath to the victim. His account of Caesar's death is very similar to that in Chaucer, "But even then he was mindful of the requirements of honor; and when he saw that they were seeking him with their daggers drawn, he veiled his head with his toga and with his left hand drew down its folds that he might fall the more honorably" (359), and John mentions as authorities Suetonius and Lucan, two of the authorities cited by Chaucer (Policraticus, viii., c. 19). Key passages suggestive of a tyrant in the description of Caesar are the references to "roial magestee" (l. 2672), "Julius the conquerour" (l. 2673), and the description of the assassination of Pompeus "thurgh which thou puttest al th'orient in awe" (l. 2685).


Cresus, mentioned as a tyrant by Boethius and John of Salisbury, is so dedicated to conquest that he "kan nat stente/ For to bigynne a newe werre agayn" (ll. 2735-2736). Besides the common despotic characteristics of pride, wealth and vengeance, Cresus shares with Balshazar another characteristic trait of tyrants: the inability to interpret omens. Eric Jager has noted that not only Chaucer's source for the Croesus legend, the Roman de la Rose, but also Chaucer himself in The Hous of Fame treat Cresus as the typical example of a misreader or misinterpreter, one who fails to perceive the difference between literal and spiritual levels of meanings. This theme, conspicuously missing from the Monk's story, perhaps because the Monk also is a misreader who fails to perceive the true source of Cresus's downfall, is echoed by the Chaunticleer story. Chaunticleer is perhaps thus an inversion of Cresus, with many parallels and the final difference that Chaunticleer learns something while Cresus does not. If the link is intentional, then this tale also would allude to the animal nature of Cresus.

Barnabo Visconti

Barnabo Visconti was well-known to Chaucer and his audience. The Monk of Westminster (The Westminster Chronicle 1381-1394, ed. and trans. L. C. Hector [Oxford, 1982], 119, 121) relates the story of Bernabo's betrayal by his nephew Giangaleazzo Visconti at the end of 1385. Chaucer himself had been sent as an emissary to Bernabo' on the king's business in 1378, during the time of John of Gaunt's protectorate. The Westminster Chronicle condemns the treachery of the nephew and the tyranny of the uncle and relates that Bernabo' had intended to do away with his nephew who learned of his intentions and forestalled his uncle's plan by imprisoning and murdering his uncle first. In 1397 Richard II promised the French aid in fighting Giangaleazzo who had threatened to attack France in order to defend the honor of his daughter, Valentina, the duchess of Orleans, accused of bewitching Charles VI and causing his madness. Parliament refused him the money, but the French project was cancelled only because of the defeat at Nicropoli. See.Froissart's chronicle for 1397, ch. 216.

Peter the Cruel Taken Prisoner                                                                                                                                                                                                          From a 15th-century manuscript of Jean Froissart's                                                                                                                                                                               Chronicles (BNF, FR 2643 fol. 330v.)
Biblioteque National de France

Peter the Cruel

Peter of Spain was a well known petty tyrant, father-in-law to John of Gaunt who by virtue of his marriage often referred to himself as "King of Castile." He is referred to in Le Songe du Vergier by the Knight in a list of rulers drawn from Biblical and historical sources whom God allowed to be overthrown for failure to respect the law, included as a modern example. "And truly, the power of God is no less capable of destroying a king and throwing him out of his kingdom than it is of destroying the house of the poorest man who lives in the world. . . . And there is yet the recent example of the King Peter of Castille, who not long ago was deprived of his kingdom and his life by his brother Henry."  This illustration is from one manuscript of Froissard's chronicles.

Peter of Cyprus e crusade to Alexandria and for the looting that took place on that occasion as well as for his oppressive rule of Cyprus. As Haldeen Braddy has shown, Chaucer's source for this tale was probably Machaut's La Prise d'Alexandria, which names Henry de Giblet as one of Peter's assassins. He was pushed to this extreme gesture by an incident that certainly fits Peter of Cyprus to the classical description of tyrant and despot, despoiler of his people and violater of women:

"On January 8, 1369, Henry de Giblet, later one of Peter's assassins, was hunting with two fine rabbit hounds which he had given to his son, Jacques when the young Count of Tripoli, son of Peter, saw the hounds and desired them. He requested them of the son of the Viscount and received in reply a refusal along with words offensive to his honor. The king, when he was informed of this event, requested the hounds of Henry de Giblet who, siding with his son, refused to turn them over. The king caused the hounds to be taken, and the result was an incident which resulted in Henry being relieved of his charge of Viscount of Nicrosie and sent to Baphe, and his son Jacques being committed to irons and hard labor in the ditches of the tower of Marguerite. Marie de Giblet, Henry's daughter and Jacque's sister, at the time widow of Jean de Verny, was obliged to seek refuge in the monastery of Notre- Dame de Tortose in order to escape the king who wanted to marry her to a tailor, servant of Raymond de Rabin, named Carras. With no regard for her place of refuge, the king had her seized and tortured."


The Ugolino episode drawn from Canto XXXIII of the Inferno, has inspired more comment than any other episode in The Monk's Tale. No one who has examined the two episodes has failed to be disappointed by Chaucer's treatment of Dante's story. Mario Praz attributes the aesthetic insufficiency not to the Monk but to Chaucer. "It may be alleged that it is not Chaucer, but the Monk, who speaks. But would Chaucer, if he had been aware of the real nature of the Ugolino episode, have allowed one of his characters to spoil it as the Monk does? Rather we should say that here we come across the same barrier of incomprehension which caused the author of The House of Fame to translate the first lines of the Aeneid in a manner which to us sounds like a minstrel's parody. ... The sublimer side of Dante's genius failed to find an echo in Chaucer's soul, but whatever is human and touching in the Commedia found a ready response in the bourgeois poet."

More recent critics like Freccero and Ferrante however have noted that Ugolino was far from an ideal character, a tyrant himself and traitor to Pisa. Ferrante says, "Sin is finally, through all the distinctions Dante has made through the cantica, selfishness, the indulgence of the self at the expense of all other obligations, and therefore, by definition, anti-social. That is why it is possible to consider even for a moment, that Ugolino may have tried to feed on his sons. Dante's view of treachery is that a man who can commit it is no longer human." Freccero points out that the children are the innocent victims of the identical crime of treachery committed both by Ruggieri and Ugolino. "The implication is that Ugolino's portrait in the Inferno is what he deserves, despite his protestations." Moreover, the Monk himself refers us to Dante, as if to point out the discrepancy between the Monk's reading of Ugolino and Dante's.

In the Monk's Tale, Chaucer creates an exemplary tale to warn of the social consequences of tyranny, in particular of the dangers of extortionist taxation to support an extragavant and corrupt court, of a continued imperialist policy of warfare, of debasing the monastic role by advancing ignorant clerics for political purposes and perhaps to suggest that the fall of a tyrant threatens the survival of a nation. The Monk himself is evocative of Nimrod who was commonly associated with hunting, confused reason, and lordly aspriations. The monk is both a a hunter and a "multiplier of horses," engaged in pursuit of personal wealth and "delicacye" rather than "commune profit," one who, like the tyrant-priest described in John of Salisbury's bitter denunciation had "sumptuous trappings and Cresus-like means." In light of the debate over the role of the monastic orders in royal administration, Chaucer's monk is one who perverts precisely the most important ideals of the monastic orders, such as the ideal of poverty, or reverence for learning.

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