Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable,
And whan he rood, men myghte his brydel heere
Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd als cleere
And eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle
Ther as this lord was kepere of the celle.
I seigh his sleves purfiled at the hond
With grys, and that the fyneste of a lond;
And for to festne his hood under his chyn,
He hadde of gold ywroght a ful curious pyn;
A love-knotte in the gretter ende ther was.
His bootes souple, his hors in greet estaat.
Now certeinly he was a fair prelaat;
His palfrey was as broun as is a berye.
The Monk tells a series of brief tragedies, of which he has a hundred in his cell. He tells of Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Balthazar, Zenobia, Peter of Spain, Peter of Cypres, Bernabo of Lombardy, Ugolino of Pisa, Nero, Holofernes, Antiochus, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Croesus -- at which point, the Knight can take no more and calls for a halt. Harry joins in, asking for a tale of hunting. The monk refuses to tell any more tales, and Harry turns to the Nun's Priest.
Students who are reading this tale for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.
The Monk has seemed to many a very bad monastic type, flouting all the rules of his order. For an interesting defense see: Paul E. Beichner, "Daun Piers, Monk and Business Administrator," Speculum, Vol. 34, No. 4. (Oct., 1959), pp. 611-619. As this article argues, the Monk may be better than he seems. Certainly his tale shows him to be more monastic than we may have thought: the wretchedness of this world is well displayed in his collection of tragedies.
What other thynge bywaylen the cryinges of tragedyes but oonly the dedes of Fortune, that with an unwar strook overturneth the realms of greet nobleye? (Glose: Tragedye is to seyn a dite of a prosperite for a tyme that endeth in wrecchidnesse.) (Boece, Bk II, prosa 2, lines 67-72.)
Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie,
As olde bookes maken us memorie,
Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of heigh degree
Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.
And they ben versified communely
Of six feet, which men clepen exametron.
In prose eek been endited many oon,
And eek in meetre in many a sondry wyse.
Lo, this declaryng oghte ynogh suffise.
Prologue of the Monk's Tale VII.1973-982.
The Monk's Tale is usually considered an early work, adapted (perhaps with the addition of the "modern instances") for inclusion in The Canterbury Tales. If so, it is an experiment in brief narrative. As such it is sometimes quite successful, as a comparison with some parallel versions of these tragedies will show.
There is no one source for the Monk's tale. Chaucer's subtitle, De casibus virorum illustrium, refers to Boccaccio's collection of prose Latin tragedies, which -- aside from the idea of a collection of tragedies -- bears little resemblance to Chaucer's work. Chaucer may have drawn upon it for details in some of his tragedies -- notably Adam, Hercules, Nero, and Samson, and he probably drew on Boccaccio's De claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) for the account of Zenobia. But Fortune's speech on tragedy in Le roman de la rose was perhaps as important a source as Boccaccio's works, as was the Bible (including the Apocrypha), Latin histories, and, in the case of the "modern instances," general hearsay. See The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 929-30, for details.
For comparsion to Chaucer's text, see:
- Lydgate's adaptation of the tragedy of Sampson
- Laurent de Premierfait's translation (into French) of Boccaccio's De casibus
- Fortune's speech on tragedy, with the examples of Nero and Croesus, from Le roman de la rose
- The story of Ugolino from Dante's Divine Comedy
- The story of Hercules, from Ovid's Metamorphoses
A comparison of Chaucer's tragedies with those above will show that Chaucer's narratives -- brief and often forceful -- are sometimes quite good. When the Knight interrupts, he stops what threatens to be a very long performance (the Monk says he has a hundred tragedies in his cell), and a very gloomy one (given the subject); many readers are likely to agree with Harry Bailey's enthusiastic seconding of the Knight's interruption. But Harry is hardly a perceptive critic of the works on which he comments in The Tales, and the Knight bases his objection mainly on the ground that he himself prefers comedy. More sympathetic or more sophisticated readers may find a good deal to admire in the Monk's Tale and the tragedies it presents.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Monk's Tale click here.