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Tale of Melibee in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

'The Tale of Melibee' is told by Chaucer as a character in ''The Canterbury Tales,'' which raises questions about Chaucer the poet. This lesson summarizes 'The Tale of Melibee,' which stresses Christian morals such as patience, wisdom and forgiveness.

Chaucer the Pilgrim: Introduction to ''The Tale of Melibee''

''The Tale of Melibee'' is told by Chaucer. Instead of a formal prologue, it begins with an unflattering interruption. The Host interrupts Chaucer's previous ''Tale of Sir Thopas,'' complaining that ''your dirty rhyming is not worth a turd.'' Chaucer agrees to tell a moral story in prose instead.

It's important to remember that Chaucer the storyteller is a fictional persona created by Chaucer the poet. It seems he's poking fun at himself even though he's well-read and a highly talented writer. The Host's complaint is especially ironic since John Dryden, a seventeenth-century English poet, later called him ''the father of English poetry.''

Chaucer as pilgrim and storyteller in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript
Chaucer as pilgrim and storyteller in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript

Chaucer's ''Tale of Melibee''

Melibeus's Castle is Attacked

Chaucer's tale concerns a rich man, Melibeus, his wife Prudence, and their daughter Sophie. One day Melibeus locks wife and daughter in his castle and goes into the fields to relax. Three enemies invade the castle, beat Prudence, and wound Sophie in her feet, hands, ears, nose, and mouth. When he returns, the horrified Melibeus cries uncontrollably for a long time.

A wealthy man and his family, illustrated by Jean Bourdichon (circa 1500)
A wealthy man and his family, illustrated by Jean Bourdichon (circa 1500)

Meanwhile, the well-educated Prudence thinks of Ovid (an ancient Roman poet) and Seneca (an ancient Roman Stoic philosopher). Prudence says weeping excessively is unproductive and unhealthy. Quoting Solomon and Job from the Bible, she tells Melibeus to have Christian patience and to gather his family and friends to advise him.

Melibeus Gathers His Advisors

Melibeus agrees to this. Those invited are not only his friends and family, but also flatterers, doctors, and lawyers, as well as what we today call ''frenemies'' (selfish or superficial friends). A surgeon says he can't advocate further bodily harm to anyone, but promises to give Sophie medical attention. However, the frenemies and flatterers insist that Melibeus should avenge himself through war. Next, a lawyer counsels him not to rush into violence, but to beef up castle security as a precaution. This time, it's the young people present who want Melibeus to start a war.

Realizing the majority of his advisers want war, Melibeus agrees to one. Prudence begs him to listen to her first, but Melibeus says he can't ignore the opinion of so many. Quoting Solomon, he adds that all women are wicked, and that to allow his wife to be his master would be unChristian.

Melibeus and Prudence Debate

Prudence responds that even if her husband agrees to war, he can change his mind later. She says a wise man shouldn't be too proud to learn from others and cites several examples of influential good women in the Bible.

A medieval great hall like the one Melibeus would have used for his guests
A medieval great hall like the one Melibeus would have used for his guests

Melibeus, impressed by her reasoning, allows Prudence to advise him. She says God should be his first adviser, and that he must rid himself of anger, greed, and haste to make wise decisions. Quoting Christ, Cicero (an ancient Roman politician/philosopher), and Petrus Alphonsus (a twelfth-century Christian convert), Prudence urges him to consider all possible causes and outcomes of his decision, and whether he is able to execute it properly. She says that when he reaches a decision, he should keep it secret. If he can't, he should consult only true, wise, and straight-talking friends.

Prudence explains that Melibeus has made a mistake by not distinguishing between his true friends and those who don't have his best interests at heart, so he asks her to help him choose good advisors. She approves of the advice given by the surgeon, lawyer, and wise old man, but rejects that of the frenemies and flatterers. She also advises her husband to guard his castle carefully and stay away from strangers and people who might betray him.

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