Chaucer and Religion

An article by Brother Anthony of Taize (Sogang University, Seoul) first published in a miscellany offered to Professor Lee Gun-sop of Ewha University, Seoul.

There have been and continue to be many ways of approaching Chaucer. There is, for example, a great difference between the studies written about him by academic specialists, and the kind of approach needed when we have to teach Chaucer in the classroom. Professional Chaucer studies tend to follow contemporary fashions, the most influential of which have recently include discussions of narratorial ironic strategies, the exercise of power in society, and conflicts connected with gender or sexual identity. Religion as such is not usually mentioned, except in terms of corruption and oppresssion, although the presence of Boethian sub-texts in Chaucer gives rise to some quite metaphysical debates on freedom and necessity.

This paper arises out of the question, 'Who reads the Parson's Tale?' More important than the question of what we read is the question of how we read it. What readings do people today make of the Canterbury Tales? What do we look for in reading Chaucer's work? Or any work, come to that? For the last 100 years or more, the General Prologue has often been isolated, hailed as a great masterpiece, on account of the lively 'portraits' of characters that seemed not so far removed from those of Dickens. Still today, it is usually given pride of place in a Chaucer course, the portraits often being viewed as examples of 'estates satire' and therefore 'socially relevant.' The fabliau-style Tales were condemned as immoral in past times, and remained unread, while few or none today can even begin to understand Milton's enthusiasm for the fragmentary Squire's Tale. Pilgrim Chaucer's invitation to 'Turne over the leef and chese another tale' before he begins the Miller's Tale is today frequently applied to the didactic and religious tales. In all these ways, the Canterbury Tales is treated as a collection of stories that can be taken and read or taught in isolation without damage to their literary identity.

This paper sets out to examine ways in which the religious dimension is integral to the understanding of the Canterbury Tales and the key to a unifying approach to all the parts of it. This matter has been the subject of a fine book in recent years: Roger Ellis, Patterns of Religious Narrative in the Canterbury Tales (Croom Helm, 1986). Another aspect of Chaucer's religious world is discussed in A.J. Minnis, Chaucer and Pagan Antiquity (Cambridge, 1982). These will serve as the starting-points for our study, by which it may be possible to show that a reading from a religious standpoint provides a deeper and more coherent understanding of Chaucer's great work, fragmentary and incomplete as it is. (Readers will please provide their own mental italics for Canterbury Tales and the names of the various tales, if they feel a lack of them in what follows.)

Recently, some of us who teach Chaucer have been involved in a discussion, on the Chaucer email list, on the way we view and present the Canterbury Tales in our classes; crucial to this debate has been the importance we want to give in teaching Chaucer to a number of often neglected Tales that include Chaucer's own Tale, Melibee, and, above all, the final Parson's Tale and Chaucer's Retraction that concludes it. We might recall that Chaucer was published and read in the Reformation Era as a pre-Reformation prophet, thanks perhaps above all to the Ploughman's Tale that he did not write.

First, what do we mean by 'Religion' in Chaucer? That there are religious aspects to Chaucer's fictional world must be clear to any reader. They are not all Christian; Troilus and Criseyde, the Knight's Tale and a number of other tales are set in a pre- christian cosmos, with the old pagan gods of Greece and Rome playing an actively destructive role.

To concentrate on the Canterbury Tales, it is obvious that the journey to Canterbury has a religious dimension at its starting-point, as a pilgrimage of people who are at least nominally Christian towards the tomb of a martyred Archbishop situated inside a church building, where they will perform religious rituals. The way in which this destination remains hidden, virtually unmentioned in the Prologue or the links, suggests a deliberate strategy of concealment on Chaucer's part.

Seven of the pilgrims chosen for lengthy detailed description in the General Prologue are potentially or actually connected with the Church: the Prioress, Monk, Friar, Clerk, Parson, Summoner, Pardoner, as compared with the 14 descriptions of secular figures: the Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Merchant, Man of Law, Franklin, Cook, Shipman, Doctor of Physic, Wife of Bath, Ploughman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve.

With the notable exceptions of the Clerk and the Parson, all the Church-people have lives that seem to be more or less far removed from what might be expected in people of their calling; the Clerk is intensely serious at his studies, the Parson is said to be living in true Gospel style. The Prioress has pet dogs she feeds too well, cries over dead mice, and wipes her mouth before she drinks her wine, which may or may not be very serious faults; the Monk has horses for hunting, which must cost a lot to keep, and seems not to pray very often. Others, though, have lives marked by greed, gluttony, and sexual lechery, the Summoner and Pardoner seeming particularly far from the Christian ideals.

Similarly with the lay figures; some, like the Knight and the Squire, the Yeoman, the Man of Law, or the Cook, are not shown as having any particular vices, but only the Ploughman, the Parson's brother, is presented as living a particularly Christian life. Among the others, we find various activities that are not normally considered good, whether the Doctor's love of gold, or the thefts committed by dishonest people such as the Reeve, the Miller, or the Shipman, who also seems to be something of a murderous pirate.

Recent studies have referred to 'Estates Satire' and 'Anti- fraternal Satire' as backgrounds to the descriptions in the General Prologue but most readers are struck by the absence of satiric voice or irony on the part of the Narrator. The Narrator of the Canterbury Tales frame (the Pilgrimage setting) is usually termed 'the Pilgrim Chaucer' because it seems clear that he represents a distinct persona from the Chaucer whom we would term the 'author' of the Tales. The setting up of this dichotomy allows critics to detect a silently satiric grin on the author's face as he writes a text marked by frequent application of the word 'worthy' to people who are quite clearly unworthy of such admiration! There is little use in modern criticism of the word 'sin'.

This Pilgrim Chaucer describes the people with whom he went to Canterbury with remarkable detachment, agreeing uncritically with the Monk's opinions, using the words 'good' and even 'perfect' about a wide variety of lives: the Shipman is a 'good felawe,' the Doctor a 'verray, parfit praktisour,' the 'good Wif' of Bath is a 'worthy womman.' There is no such word used for the Reeve, but the Summoner is 'a gentil harlot and a kynde, a bettre felawe shoulde men nought fynde.' It is surely safer to say that this way of writing is the very opposite of that normally termed 'satire' and that the exercise of all moral or spiritual judgement is left entirely to the reader, with no knowing winks from the narrator.

All these people are embarking on a pilgrimage, but it is left to the reader to recall that human life itself is traditionally thought of as a pilgrimage; this may lead to the idea that in Christian thought, the goal of the human pilgrimage is God's judgement, and that for the people of Chaucer's time, at least, this opened on the double possibility of Heaven and Hell, bliss and damnation. The pilgrims ought to be faced with the question, 'Where are we going? To Heaven or Hell?' A pilgrimage potentially offers a time of reflection, repentance, and conversion, whereby those going to Hell can change their direction and make a new beginning.

When we teach Chaucer, how much time do we give to the last part of the General Prologue? The introduction of the Host and his subversive idea of how they should spend their time on the journey is as important as the portraits. The reader may or may not note the words the Host uses to qualify the pilgrims' activities: 'pleye,' 'disport,' 'confort,' 'be myrie.' After all, Pilgrim Chaucer has already told us that 'of manhood hym lakkede right naughte.' Sin may be 'only human' but manhood is what God took to himself in Christ's Incarnation. It is the Host, this jovial Inn-keeper, who proposes the tale-telling competition and demands the right to be their judge, in the decision as to who 'bereth hym best of alle.' This is more usually considered to be God's role, but the Host explains that he only means who tells 'Tales of best sentence and moost solaas.'

The central activity of the Canterbury Tales, then, is tale-telling. People are telling people things; in the fiction we read, the various pilgrims are telling things to their fellow-pilgrims. Most of the 'things' told here are tales, literary fictions of various kinds. When we are told something by another person, we cannot avoid the question of truth: what I am being told may or may not be true. In the Chaucerian universe, the guarantee of truth is the level of authority that can be attributed to the origin of the thing told.

The ultimate standard of truth is the Bible; when Chaucer translates words from the Bible he is especially careful to translate accurately. In the Church there are Doctors, St Augustine being the most famous, who are cited as 'auctors' in all kinds of debates. University education was centered on disputations designed to teach minds to use authorities in order to distinguish truth. The habit, though, was not limited to students, and we find the Wife of Bath as well as Chauntecleer and Pertelote busily invoking authorities to support their opinions. Now, the truth is ultimately God, so that it is necessary to know God correctly in order to be able to recognize the truth, any kind of truth, and the true meaning of events.

No ordinary person, then, has authority of themselves. Experience is not a basis for authority, since we are obliged to refer to the auctors in order rightly to evaluate our experiences. The activity of the person who instructs another by telling stories, then, is usually not 'authorship' but translation. The teller tries to influence the audience by restating, in ways that seem adapted, truths that have been sanctioned by recognized authorities in the past. The translating activity transposes old truths into new forms, not necessarily into a different foreign language.

To judge is to evaluate in terms of true meaning; lives are judged by God, tales are judged by their hearers, or in the case of our Pilgrims by a dictatorial Host who declares that his decision is final. He thus asserts that he is fully equipped to recognize 'sentence' as well as 'solaas.' It should come as no surprise to find that the Canterbury Tales is deeply concerned with 'reader-response criticism' but perhaps it is not so obvious today that such activities are deeply religious in nature!

Yet it is really quite simple. From the very beginning, the frame-situation of the Canterbury Tales obliges us to be conscious of our reading activity. Will we agree as to which Tale ought to win? Will we understand why, in the end, no tale wins? We are also obliged to keep reminding ourselves of the listening pilgrims, and the all-powerful Host, as we read each tale. What are we looking for? Sentence? or Solaas? Truth, or entertainment? Can the two aspects be reconciled, as Horace insists they should? Is fun a sinful activity? Where does the highest good lie?

It is very 'natural,' we will say, to laugh when old John the Carpenter cuts the rope and hurtles down to break his arm. 'Marvelous story,' we say. There are other such laughs, and the Host has a term for them, 'japes.' He enjoys them. We enjoy them. We rarely find a book devoted to a theory of laughter. Yet it only takes a little thought to see that we probably do not laugh in real life at people getting hurt and badly burned, marriage vows being broken, friendship being abused, to think only of the Miller's Tale. What is our laughter expressing, and what moral stance does it support? Is everything ok if we only can laugh?

There are quite a number of Tales, and the General Prologue itself is perhaps one of them, that are purely secular pictures of the 'way of the world.' The cunning, thieves and liars, seem to win out over their unsuspecting, or stupid victims, they even boast of it, and there is no certain justice. The only seeming morality of several tales is 'an eye for an eye,' with revenge being considered the obvious human response to harms received. What hope is there of justice for the poor, what meaning in undeserved suffering?

A problem arises because we all know that the Canterbury Tales is an 'unfinished work' and many critics seem to feel that this prevents any valid overall view. Yet our life, too, is unfinished work. The Tales has come down to us in various manuscript forms, it is clear that it was still in a fragmentary state at Chaucer's death. Yet this does not prevent us from seeing certain important shapes in the arrangement of tales within and across the fragments.

We all agree, I suppose, that the Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue and ends with the Parson's Tale and Chaucer's Retraction. Yet from the point of view of the Host, that cannot be right, because for him the real 'end' of the pilgrimage was to be arrival back in London and his judgement of the Tales, followed by a party! Canterbury and the religious activities there would only mark a half-way stage, an unfortunate interruption, as it were, and nothing more. I wonder how many of us explain to our students that the Tales 'would' have had that shape if Chaucer had only lived long enough? I hope we can agree that it is not true? The Canterbury Tales would only have that shape if the controlling genius of the work had been the Southwark inn-keeper, and not Geoffrey Chaucer. What is the true goal and prize in the pilgrimage of man's life, after all? Food, fun, and the options of a bully? Or conversion, penance, and eternal bliss? It will all depend on your point of view, I suppose, and that is why the Tales is such a remarkable work. It keeps confronting its readers with the question of their own life's priorities.

Harry Bailey may try to hijack the pilgrimage as it sets out from Southwark, he is still only one character, involved in a process into the truth of which he has a very limited insight. Like so very many people in the Tales, he does not see the way things are going, and has only very poor control over events. The actual end of the text, as opposed to that imagined by the Host, is a strong affirmation of the victory of grace over sin; unfortunately for most of us, it is also a radical denial of the ultimate value of literary fiction!

That leads to another fundamental point about the Tales. A number of the Tales stand in isolation, without a clear introductory linkage to the pilgrimage frame, and sometimes without a very clearly identified teller (the Man of Law's Tale about Custance, the Squire's Tale about Cambyuskan, the Merchant's Tale about old Januarius, the Franklin's Tale about Arveragus and Dorigene, and perhaps the Nun's Tale about St Cecilia).

Because of this fragmentation, it has become very easy for us to 'de-frame' the tales we are reading and attribute them all as they stand to the authorial Chaucer. The fundamental reason for this may be because of our 'romantic' notions of the poet/author's relationship with his work. The result of this process, though, is incoherence, the demolition of the Canterbury Tales as such. Ironically, the work is literally torn to pieces, because it is accused of being fragmentary. All life is fragmentary, as all knowledge is: 'We know in part' (I Corinthians 13). The Tales could never have been other than fragmentary.

We have difficulty sympathizing with the savage Knight in the General Prologue? Then we take his Tale away from him, and read it as Chaucer's adaptation of Boccaccio, obviously written years before the idea of writing the Tales ever dawned. By doing so, though, we loose all ability to reflect on why the Knight's Tale stands at the beginning of the Tales, directly after the General Prologue in all major manuscripts, and on the possible thematic links between it and other tales. In this first Tale, Love is an utterly destructive passion that turns sworn brothers into mortal enemies, and reduces high princes to the level of wild animals. We are shown the gods of this pagan world, where Christ has not yet been born, and see that they are indifferent to human pain or powerless to relieve it. Human beings become the objects of arbitrary measures designed to keep a semblance of harmony, and the only certain thing in life is death.

The religious question is clearly posed, then, from the very outset: Why do bad things happen to people? Must there be pain? The Miller comes barging in, upsetting all the Host's plans, and tells his tale, that follows the Knight's Tale in every manuscript, no doubt as Chaucer wished. It is not enough to say, as Pilgrim Chaucer does, that he's a lout and tells a lout's tale, in contrast to the aristocrat's refined art. There is much more to be said about the way the two tales complement one another; sexual ambitions operate destructively in high and low alike, jealousy and revenge drive men to extremes of violence; the injustice of the trick the gods play on Arcite is paralleled by the trick Nicholas plays on John in the tub.

Only in the Miller's Tale we are in a christian setting; at the heart of the story is the evocation of Noah's Ark, which the New Testament says is an image of Baptism, salvation from sin and death. The picture of old John sound asleep in his Ark of salvation, exhausted after his efforts to save them all from drowning, while Nicholas 'swives' his willing wife, is as surreal as anything in Bosch; again, the question comes, 'And is there care in heaven?' But also a murmur, 'They know not what they do.' Or do they?

At various points in the Canterbury Tales we come across people trying to help people become aware of what they are doing, so that they stop doing it and change to lives of salvation. Success or failure may be a form of judgement on the hearers, or it may depend on the unity between the words and life of the speaker. Major examples of this come in the tale of Custance, who converts hosts of people in the pagan world in which she is kept alive and intact by special grace, as in Noah's Ark, despite all the plots of the wicked.

In contrast, Cecilia in the Second Nun's Tale achieves the highest success, eternal sainthood in heaven, by not surviving the attacks of the pagans, her holiness is assured by her martyrdom, and she is shown teaching her fellow-christians even with her head almost completely cut off. The life and the message here are one, in a story where the literary technique is significantly weak. The text of the Tale is a very conservative translation of a story from the Golden Legend.

Now, if we talk about Chaucer taking this old translation from a drawer and stuffing it into the Tales, to fill up a gap, we are not even beginning to read it as an integral part of the whole work. If we complain that we know nothing about the second Nun, so that we cannot feel the tale's potential irony, we are barking up the 'charming Dickensian characters' tree. This tale demonstrates a key notion: the only way a text can tell the truth is by shunning the self-conscious search for aesthetic effects, humbly reproducing as closely as possible the original Auctor, because the aim of telling is to bring hearers to salvation. As Ellis (100) reminds us, the second Nun's Tale has many links with the Man of Law's Tale, and the Man of Law in his Prologue offers the supreme irony of a detailed criticism of the work of a contemporary poet named Geoffrey Chaucer! The fundamental discussion about literature contained in the Canterbury Tales is not about how to make a 'good story' but whether anyone can tell a tale that makes people good. The answer seems to be that it is almost impossible, unless you are a martyr whose head has been partly cut off!

In very many of the Tales, the 'sentence,' the message, is far from clear, and often the finer the literariness, the more confused the application. A prime example of this is the Clerk's Tale of Griselde, which he got from Petrarch; her sufferings are put in relationship with those of Job, but it is far from clear that Walter can convincingly be read as God, unless God is the Knight's Tale's Saturn. What really confuses the matter, though, is the way in which the Clerk tries at the end to explain the message; the story, he says, shows that we should be constant in adversity.

But then he looks around at his audience, and suddenly Griselde becomes the antifeminists' model wife, so hard to find nowadays, thanks, perhaps, to the Wife of Bath. So most tellers' attempts to adapt to and please their audience lead to a failure to express the truth potentially contained in their tales, since the truth is more or less unpalatable either to them or to their listeners. Some tellers even seem unaware that there might be a truth to be conveyed, especially those responsible for the fabliaux.

In any search for a religious reading of the Tales, there are certain vital moments where everything seems to come together. One of these is certainly the Pardoner's Tale, and within it, the exemplum of the 3 riotours. Here they are, hard at work drinking in a tavern at some very early hour of the morning, being served by a taverner and a boy who might rather be asleep, when they learn of the sudden death of an old companion.

Now, the encounter with unexpected death normally provokes introspection, memento mori, examination of conscience, and the processes portrayed in Everyman. These three, though, have a quite different response. First, they are too drunk or too foolish to be able to distinguish fiction (personification) from reality, and take quite literally the taverner's Tale that Death has his home in a nearby village where the plague has killed everyone. They therefore imitate Palamon and Arcite, swearing oaths of eternal brotherhood, and resolve to 'sleen this false traytor deeth' (697).

They set out on their quest, their pilgrimage. Certainly they do not realize the enormity of their undertaking; the Prioress has the message on a brooch, 'Amor vincit omnia,' but how much Amor have they got? and she might have told these fellows that only Christ can conquer death: 'Death is swallowed up in victory' (I Corinthians 15) is the central Christian Gospel. The riotours put themselves in Christ's place, set out to repeat his work, yet by their oaths 'Cristes blessed body they torrente' (707).

Then comes their much-commented encounter with the poor old man. He greets them with humble religious courtesy, 'lordes, god yow se' (713), and in return the 'proudest' of the three insults him for being so old; the Wife of Bath's Tale's young man comes to mind. The old man tells of his own patient eagerness for a death that will not come, then instructs them on the proper way to talk to their elders, quoting the Bible as authority. They cannot find any sense in his words, learn nothing, and fail to notice that he ends by blessing them. They simply ask where they can find death and he points to a nearby crooked way leading to an oak-tree in a grove. Of course, they find a pile a gold there.

Obviously, this whole scene is full of religious elements: to get to the place, they have to turn aside from the right way; in the Old Testament the oak tree and the grove are ambiguous places, sometimes holy like the oak of Mamre where Abraham was buried, and sometimes consecrated to false, pagan gods. In directing them there, the old man is recalling two phrases: the first is 'The love of money is the root of all evils' (this is the message that the Pardoner claims to be preaching, although he also exemplifies love of money himself), and the second is 'The wages of sin is death.' Both are biblical.

The old man's last words to the three are: 'God save yow, that boghte agayne mankynde, And yow amende' (764-5). Here we find mention of the humanity that everyone agrees is so vividly portrayed in Chaucer's work, its need for redemption (being bought back from slavery/captivity) by God, who offers his salvation to those who turn to him and sincerely try to change their lives to conform to his will (amende) while looking to God for healing (amende). The old man stands there, perfectly appalled and utterly helpless, as the three merry youths go to their self-inflicted dooms. All he can do is pray for them, but it will not do much good for them in this world, at least.

If we consider the whole Pardoner's Prologue and Tale, we find a deeply complex religious fiction. In his Prologue, the Pardoner describes his techniques when addressing a simple rural audience; the implications are part of a larger pattern in the Tales: he and the pilgrims consider themselves to be of quite a high social class, so that he can show his cunning tricks and laugh at the simple poor, his victims. The little word 'Lordings' that various speakers use, and the way some Tales contain advice addressed to those in positions of power, suggest a subtle and foolish snobbery or social pride that the Prioress embodies in her 'courtly' table manners.

The Pardoner's words are in a very real sense all true, he is a masterly 'translator' of the Church's teaching about sin; but they embody what he is, and therefore they are self-defeating because he embodies in them his own condemnation. Critics struggle to understand what he thinks he is doing at the end of the Tale, when he suddenly launches into a 'sales pitch' addressed to the pilgrims; it does not help to use psychological realism here, though.

In the Pardoner's terms, this moment is 'the moment of truth' because he may be lucky and find his rhetorical skills have worked, some of the pilgrims may have felt a religious anxiety that he can exploit. But alas, he is only one money-maker among many, and most of his hearers have their own 'tricks of the trade,' they are 'on to him' from the start as 'one of themselves' and the Host more than any. The result is a row. The Tale therefore ends with the highly symbolic reconciling kiss between Pardoner and Host; they are brothers, one of a kind, and nobody has been challenged by the message that 'Radix malorum est cupiditas' (I Timothy 6:10).

The Pardoner's Tale begins with a lengthy attempt to put various sins into some kind of order or hierarchy of gravity; this passage reminds us that human choices and actions derive from one another, that one thing leads to another. It is characteristic of the Pardoner's restricted spiritual understanding that he never really deals with 'amendment of life' but only with escaping the consequences of sin by purchasing his pardons.

The question of the reasons for sin and the applications of grace is fundamental in the Canterbury Tales. Why else did Chaucer set out to write it? All the tales pursue the fault-lines of human life, the thin line between nature and grace, life and death, Heaven and Hell. All the words of the Tales, taken together, represent a sketch of Divine Comedy that is in some ways more authentic than Dante's because closer to life, and because left fragmentary. Only God can see, and be, the completed pattern. What we see and say is a matter of glimpses, often wrong, or partly wrong; what we express, especially in literary fictions, will often fail to communicate the truth, because we easily allow ourselves to be corrupted, giving people what they want (solaas) and not what they need (sentence), because that is how we treat ourselves.

It can only be noted that the Pardoner needs the Wife of Bath (again, ironically, because of all the male pilgrims, he is least able to partner her!). His analysis of sin involves money, greed, anger, murder, conspicuous consumption, selfishness, but not sex. The Wife of Bath completes his picture without fundamentally changing it, since she too suggests that her need of sexual pleasure is only secondary to her need of financial security. Her young husbands only came when she had killed three rich old ones and inherited their wealth. That she may be as murderous in her way as the Pardoner's three young men is often generously overlooked, yet those journeys she is reported to have made to Jerusalem, Rome, and the rest (GP 465) were surely religious penances, not pious tourism! The multiple ironies implicit in her use of authorities to illustrate a thesis also parallel the Pardoner's.

Certainly sex and money between them dominate a lot of the lives represented in the Tales, whether among the pilgrims or in the tales. Chaucer, no doubt, more or less realized that he was better equipped to represent fallen nature than effective grace. That would help explain why critics use the word 'idealized' to qualify Parson and Ploughman portraits. Still, he certainly knew a thing or two about the possible alternatives to the primrose path.

There is another key moment for a religious reading of the Canterbury Tales. Students may not notice it, but professors often fail to explain the first 26 lines of the Nun's Priest's Tale, beyond using such terms as 'irrelevant digression' or 'a misleading start.' The portrait of the poor widow is, indeed, completely irrelevant to the plot of the beast fable (with multiple digressions) that follows. If we fail to remember that the Canterbury Tales is not an anthology of short stories, that is perhaps all we can say, maybe not realizing that by such words we are criticizing Chaucer's competence as a writer. There is a reason for everything that is in the work, as well as for a lot of what is not there. There are more ways than one of being coherent.

The widow's life is described in very great detail. Her cottage is 'narwe,' it stands beside a grove in a dale (grove have been discussed above, this world is known as a 'vale of tears'). Her life is 'ful symple' because her income is 'litel' and she has no husband to get money from (the Tales are full of mercenary marriages). Indeed, her revenue is of a very special kind: 'swich as god hir sente' and she is very careful how she uses it. Here is someone entirely dependant on divine providence for her survival, like Custance in her years at sea, or like the Old Testament prophets, and she too is not disappointed. She is not alone, she shares what little she has with her daughters, like the Widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17) or the Widow of II Kings 4.

She is not a purely idealized symbol, though, and her food does not come by direct delivery from Heaven; she has cows and a sheep like anyone else. The narrator may be suggesting 'indirect reported speech' in the line 'Ful sooty was hir bour and eek her halle' because the implied amusement at the idea of seeing her one room (without a chimney for the smoke from the fire) where she sleeps and eats, as a noble house's private bedroom and dining hall is most properly hers: she regrets nothing.

Her food is correspondingly plain and meagre ('sklendre') and the narrative spends several lines on stating what it does not contain: all the delicacies that the good eaters of the General Prologue enjoy! As a result she never suffers from 'repleccioun' and indeed enjoys excellent health, again expressed by the diseases of over-indulgence (gout and apoplexy) that she does not suffer from.

The secret of her good health? 'Atempree diete... And exercise and hertes suffisaunce' but it should not be thought that she goes jogging; hard work every day in her garden and dairy is her secret. She is a truly happy woman, for heart's contentment is true happiness and it only comes when all passions are stilled. Very unlike the Wife of Bath, who wants satisfaction, not contentment, and will not remain a widow one second longer than she has to.

If the Pardoner's riotours are destroyed in part by their drinking, she is safe because 'No wyn ne drank she.' The food she eats is milk, bread, bacon and sometimes an egg, again seen as a royal banquet in amused tones: 'Her bord was served moost with whit and blak' in a kind of riddle following on from the 'white and red' of the wine she feels no need of. That is all we ever learn of the 'sely widwe' except that she and her daughters lead the chase after the fox near the end, to no effect. She is so humble that we know the name of her sheep and of her dogs, but not hers. Yet she is so happy we might call her blessed among women.

The events, and the words spoken, in her chicken-yard occur in a universe quite foreign to her, a universe of philosophical debate, of disputations with no clear-cut conclusion, the ambiguous use of authorities and exempla, and the mistranslation of Latin tags. The Nun's Priest's Tale is swamped in words, but its narrator is at a loss to explain what they all mean, offers more than one final moral, and ends by inviting the audience to try to decide which is chaff and which is fruit, in another biblical allusion to a judgement of a non-literary kind.

The Tale as such is a religious tale because its ultimate question is about providence, though it cannot answer it. If the events of the future can be known, whose responsibility is it to prevent suffering? These questions fascinated Chaucer, they were at the heart of his interest in astronomy and Boethius, they underlie Troilus and Criseyde and the Knight's Tale, and all Chaucer's language of Necessity, Fortune, Chance, and Destiny.

The widow, though, has her justification elsewhere. Her life is a direct illustration of the very last words of the last Tale. The Parson ends his Tale by evoking the 'fruit of penaunce,' the 'endless blisse of hevene': 'this blisful regne may men purchase by poverte espiritueel and the glorie by lowenesse, the plentee of joye by hunger and thurst, and the reste by travaille, and the lyf by mortificacion of synne.' We know nothing of the widow's life, her sins are as secret as her name. All we know is that she has come to heart's contentment, she is not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.

As we have said, the Host's pilgrimage of sin hopes to end in supper, but thanks to the words of the Parson, his plan is thwarted. The Parson's Tale is preceded by a Prologue in which the Host shows the low level of his expectations; he wants one last fable. The Parson's reply is typical of a Northerner: 'Thow getest fable noon ytoold for me.' Basing himself on the Bible, the Parson rejects not only fables, but every kind of fiction, since it is always an abandoning of truth (soothfastness). He also renounces the use of verse. All that remains is 'Moralitee and vertuous matere' told in prose, and humbly subject to the correction of those who may know better.

The Parson's options are radical, in a later age they would be termed 'Puritan,' and the result is a 'Tale' that goes far beyond the Pilgrim Chaucer's 'Melibee' in its rejection of all fiction, and narrative, and of confusing debate. The Parson's Tale is uncompromising doctrine, utterly concentrated on provoking a change in the hearers lives; it is not open to any of the temptations of more entertaining kinds of story. Above all, it is one with its teller's own humanity, so that we cannot pinpoint the slightest moment of irony.

When we teach, if we are pointing our students in the direction of the text and not just telling them what they must find in it if they want to get an A grade, we shall not be faithful to soothfastness if we fail to point our students towards the Parson's Tale, followed by Chaucer's properly ambiguous Retraction. Too much scepticism may induce us to reject the Parson as a kill-joy and the Retraction as a joke. Both work and writer deserve more respect and a deeper attention. For those who have no religious dimension in their own lives, it may not seem obvious, but Chaucer's work is not only entertaining, it is also thoughtful, it is philosophical, but more than that, it represents a deeply religious discourse on human existence.