Gold THE GEOFFREY CHAUCER PAGE


 

The Tale of Melibee

 

[Melibeus' enemies break into his house, beat his wife Prudence and wound his daughter Sophie with five mortal wounds. He is enraged. His wife counsels him to be patient in suffering. She advises him to call his council. He does; and the majority advise him to avenge himself by war. He agrees.

Prudence advises him to reconsider; although he scorns to be ruled by a woman's counsel, she convinces him to listen to her. She tells him how to choose counsel and how to use it and she discourses on such matters as the proper uses of riches and power. She advises him to seek peace rather than war. He is indignant, concerned with his "honour and worship." But finally he says that he will do as she wishes, following "your wil and your comseil."

She tells him to summon his enemies and forgive them; he does so, assenting fully to her guidance and thanking God for sending him a wife of such great discretion.]

The Melibee is a translation of Renaud de Louens' French translation of the Latin Liber de consolationis et consilii by Albertanus of Brescia. Until quite recent years it was scorned by most critics. A standing joke among older Chaucerians was that Chaucer tells the tale of Melibee to avenge himself for Harry Baily's crude interruption of Sir Thopas.

But in fact Harry seems to be delighted by the tale:

Whan ended was my tale of Melibee,
And of Prudence and hire benignytee,
Oure Hooste seyde, "As I am feithful man,
And by that precious corpus Madrian,
I hadde levere than a barel ale
That Goodelief, my wyf, hadde herd this tale!
For she nys no thyng of swich pacience
As was this Melibeus wyf Prudence.
By Goddes bones, whan I bete my knaves,
She bryngeth me forth the grete clobbed staves,
And crieth, 'Slee the dogges everichoon,
And brek hem, bothe bak and every boon!'

"And if that any neighebor of myne
Wol nat in chirche to my wyf enclyne,
Or be so hardy to hire to trespace,
Whan she comth hoom she rampeth in my face,
And crieth, 'False coward, wrek thy wyf!
By corpus bones, I wol have thy knyf,
And thou shalt have my distaf and go spynne!'

Harry, who is something of a bully, is terrified of his wife Goodelief.

Harry's admiration for the tale was shared by the Goodman of Paris, who includes it in the book of instruction for his wife that he composed around 1392-94:

The Goodman's Comments on Melibee

Though the Melibee is by no means a critical favorite, some have found it of great importance to The Canterbury Tales as a whole (see Donald Howard, The Idea of The Canterbury Tales); its pacifism nicely contrasts with the Knight's Tale. Pacifism was one of the doctrines of the Lollards in Chaucer's time, and though he was by no means a heretic, he may have found this aspect of Lollard thought intriguing.

For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Melibee click here.

 

Back to Geoffrey Chaucer Page | (Or use your browser's back button to return to the previous page.)

Last modified: May, 12, 2000
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)