Analysis of The Plowman's Tale & The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

'The Ploughman's Tale' is a fairly simple tale that tells the life of a monk. As a result, an analysis of the tale considers its late inclusion to Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'', as wells as the allegorical meaning in the work of the monk.

Should 'The Ploughman's Tale' Be Included?

Pick up a standard copy of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and there is a very good possibility that 'The Ploughman's Tale' will not be included. This is because scholars cannot agree whether this tale should be considered part of the official canon, asking whether it should be included with the other stories, or 'books'. This particular story is a late addition to The Canterbury Tales, discovered in later manuscripts that Chaucer had written. It is Chaucer's work, and the ploughman is mentioned in the general prologue. That should be sufficient to settle the discussion.

The ploughman tells a simple tale, with a strong religious theme. This fits with how the ploughman is described in the prologue. He is a man who loves God 'with all his heart,/At all times, good and bad, no matter what'. His tale falls right in line with this. His tale is about Mary and the purpose 'to that ende, here ys a remembraunce'. His tale is for the greater glory of God. 'The Ploughman's Tale' seems to be cohesive with the remainder of The Canterbury Tales. One needs to remember that this tale is a late addition, and as a result, its inclusion is contested.

A Tale About Mary

Prior to beginning his tale, the Ploughman Tylyer (Tiller) explains the purpose behind his tale. He tells of Mary, 'Crystys modyr dere…tha bare bothe God and man'. He seems to think that perhaps people forget what she has done for mankind. Not only did she give birth to Jesus, considered to be the Savior of the world, but she is also the 'sheld…agayns the malyce/Of the Fende'. Mary stands as the guardian protecting man from the devil. Because of her, the devil does not run amok creating havoc and chaos.

When reading this prologue, it is important to remember that the Ploughman is a God-fearing man. His faith guides his life. It is why he leads a simple life, and 'loved his neighbor as himself'. He follows the commandments of God faithfully. To him the world is black and white. With this in mind, one can understand why he would choose this topic for his story. It is familiar to him, and it is something that he knows very well. Taking all this into consideration, this tale still seems to fit within the series of stories that Chaucer has created.

The Ploughman's Tale

The story about the monk is fairly straight-forward. A father teaches his son to say 50 prayers to Mary every day. This, perhaps unintentionally, influences the boy to become a monk, where he continues the practice. One day, Mary appears before him and asks him to increase the number of prayers he says. He does, and when she returns again as promised, she asks him to go forth and teach others to do the same. His reward is a place in Heaven, which Mary indicates will be seven years hence. The monk does as he is instructed, and he does ascend to Heaven as Mary promised.

Since the story is plain, in terms of an analysis, perhaps it is better to look at what is hidden or implied. Very easily one can see this as an allegory for, or symbolic of, the Word of God. Jesus told his disciples similar things. He showed them how to pray, how to practice their faith, and then sent them forth to teach. This is analogous to what Mary asks of the monk. She tells him that in doing these requests the monk 'passe shalt hens, and me come unto'. In a sense, the monk could be seen as Mary's disciple, just as the disciples went forth to spread the word of God

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