Tale of Beryn, The

Tale of Beryn, The
(Second Merchant’s Tale, History of Beryn)
(ca. 1410–1420)
   The Tale of Beryn is a late MIDDLE ENGLISH verse tale that survives in a single mid-15th-century manuscript of The CANTERBURY TALES, although it is clearly not the work of CHAUCER. It is also clearly somewhat earlier than the manuscript, perhaps about 1410 (as linguistic parallels with the contemporary MUM AND THE SOOTHSEGGER suggest), or as late as 1420, which would have been a jubilee celebration in Canterbury (the 250th anniversary of Thomas BECKETT’s murder in the cathedral), which might have been a logical time for a revival of interest in Chaucer’s story of a Canterbury pilgrimage. The anonymous author was thoroughly familiar with The Canterbury Tales, and displays his knowledge of the GENERAL PROLOGUE as well as The MILLER’S TALE, The REEVE’S TALE, The FRIAR’S TALE, The SUMMONER’S TALE, The PARDONER’S TALE and The CANON’S YEOMAN’S TALE. The tale is preceded by a lengthy prologue in which Chaucer’s pilgrims arrive in Canterbury, visit the shrine, engage in other exploits, and begin their homeward journey. The Tale of Beryn, presented as the second tale of the Merchant, follows. The prologue and tale include 4,022 lines of rhymed couplets; however, only a few of these can be construed as decasyllabic (10-syllable) lines in the manner of Chaucer. Generally the lines contain 12 to 14 syllables, and (perhaps under the influence of popular English ALLITERATIVE VERSE) seem to be six-stress lines with a pause or caesura in the middle. Thus the poem begins:
   When all this fresh feleship were com to Caunterbury,
   As ye have herd tofore, with tales glad and mery,
   (Bowers 1992, 60, ll. 1–2)
   The compiler of the manuscript (Northumberland MS 455, dated ca. 1450–1470) apparently wanted to complete Chaucer’s plan from the General Prologue, wherein the Host describes a taletelling contest that would be held on the way to Canterbury and on the way back. In virtually all other manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, it is clear that Chaucer abandoned that original idea and intended the pilgrimage to end with The Parson’s Tale, at the gates of the city. In the Northumberland manuscript, however, The Tale of Beryn is assigned to the Merchant as the first tale to be told on the journey back to London. It is followed by Chaucer’s TALE OF MELIBEE, The MONK’S TALE, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, The MANCIPLE’S TALE, and the PARSON’S TALE, all displaced from their normal positions. Since there are some leaves missing from the end of the manuscript, it is unknown whether the compiler included a section on the pilgrims arriving back at the Tabard Inn and Harry Bailey’s selection of a winner in the storytelling competition. In the prologue, the pilgrims reach the city and visit the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett in the cathedral. The various pilgrims interact with one another and explore the city, and they stay at one of the local inns for the night.Much time is spent on a FABLIAU-like escapade involving the Pardoner. The poet depicts the Pardoner as a lustful heterosexual with a keen interest in a bartender named Kit (ignoring implications of homosexuality or castration in the General Prologue that modern readers have emphasized). The Pardoner convinces Kit to meet him privately, and gives her money to buy them supper.When he reaches her room, however, he is locked out and she is supping with her lover, who beats the Pardoner with a staff. Kit and her love convince the Innkeeper that the Pardoner is a thief, and he winds up spending the night out in the cold in a kennel with a fierce dog who continually threatens to bite him.
   When morning comes, the pilgrims reassemble and start their homeward journey, and the Host calls upon the Merchant to start the trek back to London with a tale. The tale is perfectly suited to the Merchant: It is a comic story whose noble young protagonist decides he would rather be a merchant than a knight. He sets sail for foreign parts with his merchandise, but a storm drives him to an unknown land. The natives of the strange land are thieves and tricksters who ensnare the young merchant in complex legal maneuvers. But he meets a lame man named Geffrey, who reveals that he, too, is a foreigner and has been faking his handicap for years in order to study how to take revenge upon the men of that land. Geffrey shows the young merchant how to win his law case by using tricks even more outrageous than those used on him. The poet’s interest in legal matters has led some scholars to speculate that he may have been a lawyer himself, or may have written the tale for an audience at one of the Inns of Court (the schools in London that trained lawyers). It is true that the French source of the tale, called Bérinus, does not emphasize the legal aspects quite so much. However, there is a Latin couplet following the tale in the manuscript that identifies the author as a “son of the church of St. Thomas.” This, plus the fact that the language of the text shows clear evidence of a Kentish origin for the tale, and the fact that the poet evinces an unusual familiarity with pilgrim rituals at St. Thomas’s shrine, all point to an author who was a monk connected with the cathedral shrine and the cult of St. Thomas.
   The Tale of Beryn and its prologue provide an interesting look at how one 15th-century reader of Chaucer understood the master’s text. It is also an interesting satire of legal practices and an amusing comic story in its own right.
   Bibliography
   ■ Bowers, John M., ed. The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth- Century Continuations and Additions. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Published for TEAMS by Medieval Institute Publications University, 1992.
   ■ ———.“The Tale of Beryn and The Siege of Thebes: Alternative Ideas of The Canterbury Tales,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 9 (1985): 23–50.
   ■ Brown, Peter. “Journey’s End: The Prologue to The Tale of Beryn.” In Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Poetry, edited by Julia Boffey and Janet Cowan, 143–174. King’s College London Medieval Studies 5. London: King’s College, 1991.
   ■ Darjes, Bradley, and Thomas Rendall. “A Fabliau in the Prologue to the Tale of Beryn,”Mediaeval Studies 47 (1985): 416–431.
   ■ Green, Richard Firth. “Legal Satire in The Tale of Beryn,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 11 (1989): 43–62.
   ■ Winstead, Karen A. “The Beryn-Writer as a Reader of Chaucer,” Chaucer Review 22 (1988): 225–233.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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