Monk’s Tale, The

Monk’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1373–1386)
   CHAUCER’s Monk’s Tale is one of the lesser-known CANTERBURY TALES. It takes the form of a series of vignettes illustrating the fall of important figures in history, beginning with Lucifer and Adam, and extending through 15 more notables from biblical or classical times, or in a few cases from nearcontemporaries, like Pedro the Cruel, king of Castile (d. 1369), and Ugolino of Pisa (d. 1289). The stories range from one stanza for Lucifer or Adam to 16 in the case of Zenobia, third-century queen of Palmyra. The point of the stories is to illustrate the power of Fortune in human affairs and, at least implicitly, to remind the reader that the only true stability lies not in this world but in the world to come.
   Such collections were popular in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s was inspired chiefly by BOCCACCIO’s Latin text De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (The Fall of Illustrious Men), and in the 15th century the English poet John LYDGATE wrote a poem of 36,000 lines on the subject called The Fall of Princes. It seems likely that Chaucer was also drawing on a section of the ROMAN DE LA ROSE, wherein Reason condemns Fortune for her role in the downfall of a number of historical personages.
   A number of scholars have suggested that The Monk’s Tale is an early work, from the early 1370s, after Chaucer’s first Italian journey (1372–73). The stories of some of the contemporary figures cannot have been written before 1385, but it has been suggested that Chaucer added them when he revised the earlier poem to include among the Canterbury Tales. However, since he does not mention the collection when he lists his own works in the prologue to The Legend of Good Women, and since the influence of Boccaccio doesn’t become pervasive in his poetry until after his second visit to Italy in 1378, some have argued that Chaucer wrote The Monk’s Tale later, even while he was beginning the Canterbury Tales.
   The tale ends when the Knight interrupts the Monk, saying he has had enough of the gloomy stories (the Monk has said that he has 100 such stories to tell, and the threat of that many more seems too much for the Knight). The Host agrees that the tales are monotonous, and many readers have likely concurred. However, the individual short narratives with which Chaucer is experimenting in The Monk’s Tale are often quite powerful in their brevity. The collection is also interesting as an illustration of the medieval concept of tragedy, which is quite different from the classical sense. As the Monk explains:
   Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
   . . .
   Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee
   And is yfallen out of heigh degree
   Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.
   (Benson 1987, 241, ll. 1973–77)
   That is, tragedy is defined as a fall from prosperity, through the whims of Fortune—something outside of human control.
   Of interest, as well, is the stanza used in The Monk’s Tale: a stanza of six decasyllabic (10-syllable) lines rhyming ababbcbc—it is a form that Chaucer uses nowhere else in his narrative poetry, and may be utilized here specifically because the couplet in the middle of the stanza suggests the high point of Fortune’s wheel, and the end of the stanza falls off from its climax as Fortune’s wheel turns down from its height.
   ■ Benson, Larry, et al. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Knight, Stephen, et al. “Colloquium: The Monk’s Tale,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22 (2000): 379–440.
   ■ Ruud, Jay. “ ‘In Meetre in Many a Sondry Wyse’: Fortune’s Wheel and The Monk’s Tale,” English Language Notes 26 (1989): 6–11.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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