The Monk's Tale
The Monk's tale to the other pilgrims is a collection of seventeen short stories, exempla, on the theme of tragedy. The tragic endings of the following historical figures are recounted: Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, Pedro of Castile, Peter I of Cyprus, Bernabò Visconti, Ugolino of Pisa, Nero, Holofernes, Antiochus, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Croesus.
Literary critics believe that a large portion of the tale may have been written before the rest of the Canterbury Tales and the four most contemporaries added later. A likely dating for this first-edition of the text is the 1370s, shortly after Chaucer returned from a trip to Italy where he was exposed to Giovanni Boccaccio's Concerning the Falls of Illustrious Men as well as other works like the Decameron. The tragedy of Bernabò Visconti must have been written after 1385, when he died. The basic structure for the tale is modeled after the aforementioned Concerning the Falls of Illustrious Men and the tale of Ugolino of Pisa is retold from Dante's Inferno.
The Monk, in his prologue, claims to have a hundred of these stories in his cell but the Knight stops him after only seventeen saying that they have had enough sadness. The order of the stories within the tale is different in several early manuscripts and if the more contemporary stories were at the end of his tale it may be that the Knight has another motivation for interrupting than sheer boredom. In Line 51 of the General Prologue, it is said of the Knight that: "At Alisaundre he was, whan it was wonne". If the Knight was at the capture of Alexandria then he was probably part of the crusade organised by Peter I of Cyprus and hearing of the tragedy of his former military commander may have been what prompted him to interrupt.
The form of tragedy depicted in The Monk's Tale is not that argued in Aristotle's Poetics, but "the medieval idea that the protagonist is victim rather than hero, raised up and then cast down by the workings of Fortune."
The text, despite the Monk's insistence upon a strict, homogeneous definition of tragedy, presents as equally tragic tales that diverge in content, tone, and form massively. For example, the structure and matter of the tales of Ugolino and Nero are, effectively, mirror images. Chaucer may be undermining the Monk's literary dogma and overly-strict generic classifications.
The metrical form of the Monk's Tale is the most complex of all the pilgrims': An eight-line stanza rhyming ababbcbc. There is usually a strong, syntactical link between the fourth and fifth lines which some literary theorists feel prevents the stanza from breaking in half. This metrical style gives an elevated, spacious tone to the Monk's Tale that is not always evidenced in the diction. In fact, the language is often simple and direct except in those instances of moralizing, whether discussing God or Fortune, when the vocabulary becomes weightier.
- Goodall, Peter; Greentree, Rosemary; Bright, Christopher, eds. (2009). Chaucer's Monk's Tale and Nun's Priest's Tale : An Annotated Bibliography 1900 to 2000. annotated by Geoffrey Cooper ... [et al.]. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-80209-320-2.
- Benson, Larry D. "The Canterbury Tales" in Riverside Chaucer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986, p. 18.
- Cooper, Helen. The Canterbury Tales (Oxford guides to Chaucer). Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996, p.334-5.
- "Chaucer's Monk's Tale and Nun's Priest's Tale : An Annotated Bibliography 1900 to 2000 / edited by Peter Goodall ; annotations by Geoffrey Cooper ... [et al.]. ; editorial assistants, Rosemary Greentree and Christopher Bright". Trove. National Library of Australia. Retrieved 29 October 2012. "This annotated bibliography is a record of all editions, translations, and scholarship written on The Monk's Tale and the Nun's Priest's Tale in the twentieth century with a view to revisiting the former and creating a comprehensive scholarly view of the latter".
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- Side by side modern translation of "The Monk's Tale"
- Modern Translation of the Monk's Tale and Other Resources at eChaucer