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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

Untold Tales: What Chaucer Omitted from the Canterbury Tales

Updated: Apr 20

 

 

I am currently working on a mystery series set in 1380s England where Geoffrey Chaucer is the sleuth. The tentative title is The Geoffrey Chaucer Mysteries. Super creative, I know.  


British Library, Harley 4866, f.88

 

Working on the admittedly vanilla-sounding series gives me the excuse to read amazing scholarship about all the places Chaucer went, the things he did, and the decisions he made. While researching some of the minor characters in the tales, (and their potential appearance in the series!) I came across an amazing book chapter by John Bowers called Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Politically Corrected. His essay study investigates what Chaucer didn’t write and the political reasons some pilgrims traveling to Canterbury in his poem The Canterbury Tales do not get a tale.

 

First, for those interested, a quick summary of The Canterbury Tales. The Tales is a collection of stories told by a diverse group of pilgrims traveling to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The tales cover a wide range of genres, including romance, fabliaux, allegory, and morality tales, reflecting the varied backgrounds and interests of the pilgrims. Through the storytelling competition, Chaucer provides a vivid portrait of medieval English society, exploring themes such as love, morality, social class, and religious hypocrisy. The frame narrative, set against the backdrop of the pilgrimage, allows Chaucer to weave together multiple narrative voices and perspectives, creating a rich tapestry of characters and experiences. The Canterbury Tales is celebrated for its masterful blend of humor, satire, and keen observations of human nature, making it a timeless classic of English literature.

 

Traveling to Canterbury we have the framing part of the poem called The General Prologue. The General Prologue introduces 30 pilgrims.

 

But 7 pilgrims do not tell any tales.

 

  • The Plowman

  • The Knight’s Yeoman

  • The 5 Guildsmen

 

Chaucer does, however, introduce the Canon’s Yeoman, which puts the silence of the original character into sharper relief.

 

Medieval scribes copying Chaucer’s poem also experienced confusion. Sometimes they maintained Chaucer’s omissions. Sometimes they mended the gaps with supplementary materials. Bowers believes that this was an attempt to make a more “politically correct” version of The Canterbury Tales.

 

Several social forces shaped Chaucer’s need to make the CT more “politically correct” as Bowers describes.

 

  • Laws made to combat a growing sect of religious non-conformists called the Lollards: The Law de Haeretico Comburendo, enacted in England in 1401 during the reign of King Henry IV, was legislation that made heresy punishable by burning at the stake. It targeted those who held beliefs deemed heretical by the Catholic Church, particularly those associated with the Lollard movement, which advocated for reform within the church. This law reflected the intense religious and political climate of the time, where any deviation from orthodox Catholic doctrine was seen as a threat to the established order.

  • Richard II’s difficulties with Parliament: During the 1390s, Richard II faced significant difficulties with Parliament, primarily due to tensions stemming from his autocratic rule and fiscal policies.  

  • Rise in crime: Crime in England during the 1390s increased due to a combination of social, economic, and political factors.  These included the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), weak law enforcement, urbanization, and population growth often without adequate infrastructure or social services.

  • Rise in the power of craft guilds: The rise of craft guilds in England during the 1390s can be attributed to several interconnected factors: urbanization and economic growth, social and professional networking within the guilds, and the legal privileges afforded to the guilds. As a result, trade guilds began to wield considerable political power, particularly at the local level. Guild officials often held positions of authority within municipal governments or served as representatives in urban councils, allowing them to advocate for the interests of their members and shape public policy on issues affecting the craft industry.

  • Richard II’s use of northern soldiers:  This was the result of the king’s uneasy relationship with London and the southern counties.

 

The Knight’s Yeoman

 

Chaucer had a specific model for the Knight’s Yeoman:

 

  • Rustic character

  • Threat of armed violence

  • From the north of England

  • Service to a member of a high-ranking member of society

 

During the 1390s, Richard II surrounded himself with such men. Bowers believes that the mounting influence of these Cheshire men, combined with the increasing autocracy of Richard II, accounts for Chaucer’s decision to exclude the Knight’s Yeoman from the tale-telling. Chaucer excludes the Yeoman from all incidents of roadside drama between the pilgrims.

 

The Plowman

 

The Plowman represents an ideal example of opposing the money-grubbing farm workers who abandoned their manorial duties in favor of the cash they received as migrant laborers. But the Plowman is so perfect he is reminiscent of William Langland’s Piers Plowman—a heretical, Lollard text. Both Piers and Chaucer’s Plowman:

 

  • Pay their tithes

  • Work diligently on their manor

  • Subservient to the nobility

 

Two apocryphal tales came to be associated with the Plowman. This is another instance of the scribe’s desire to make a more complete manuscript than Chaucer left us. One was used to make Chaucer seem a champion of Wyclif. Then another set of scribes inserted one of Thomas Hoccleve’s miracles of the Virgin.

 

The 5 Guildsmen

 

Why did Chaucer silence his 5 Guildsmen? Bowers argues that there was a backlash against the increasing power of the guilds. They threatened aristocratic dominance in England. An interesting side note—these 5 men were from non-food-related guilds. The Lancastrian forces at court would have aligned themselves with them, the same group with which Chaucer allied himself. By giving these men tales, Chaucer would have drawn attention to the collusion between the Lancastrian forces at court and the guilds.

 

The Cook’s Tale

The Cook from the Ellesmere Manuscript
Ellesmere Manuscript EL 26 C 9 47r

 

The break off of The Cook’s Tale resulted from the unsettling contents of the Tale rather than from the controversial character of the Cook. The Hengwrt scribe left an ample space in the manuscript, hoping the tale would show up. Later copyists added their own “endings.”

 



Someone added one such imagined “ending” to The Tale of Gamelyn, which combines a male Cinderella and Robin Hood story. Perhaps this story was in Chaucer’s working papers after his death and he intended to supplant the story of Perkin Revelour with that of Gamelyn. Why did he fail to do so?

 

Bowers argues:

 

  • The increase in crime in England made people less kindly disposed toward outlaws such as Gamelyn

  • Gamelyn’s trouble with his inheritance may have resonated uncomfortably with the Lancastrians as they jostled for the throne, supplanting Richard II’s legal heir

  • Deep anxiety about social unrest prompted Chaucer to abandon the Tale 

 

Furthermore, the crimes Perkin the apprentice commits may have given other apprentices the impression that they can behave in a similar way.

 

  1. stealing from their masters

  2. gambling

  3. drinking

  4. visiting prostitutes

 

Such a Tale would have been told at the expense of the guild master and would have become a provocation to the cook’s employers, the 5 guildsmen.

 

Conclusion

 

Bowers believes that Chaucer deliberately suppressed some pilgrims’ voices. He has exposed the larger social anxieties that beset Chaucer, and the poet’s instinctive caution motivated those suppressions. This deep awareness of social instability formed the very substance of his creativity. What remains is Chaucer’s constant negotiation between the wildly controversial and the politically correct.

 


 

I am so grateful to scholars like Bowers who make researching historical mysteries such a fascinating joy! If you'd like to read more, you can find Bowers and other amazing Chaucer scholars in this book: Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), pp. 13-44.

 


 

Thank you for joining me on this journey through history! If you're hungry for more tales of intrigue and adventure from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, don't miss out on my books Hook, Line, and Sinker and Wolfsbane: Best New England Crime Short Stories. Immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of historical fiction and experience the past like never before.

 

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