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The Monk's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

'The Monk's Tale' in Chaucer's classic 'The Canterbury Tales' is a rather morose chronicle of the tragic fates of several well-known historical figures. The Monk claims to have many more tales to tell, but he is stopped by the Knight after seventeen stories.

The Monk

In the General Prologue, the Monk is described as quite fond of good food and drink, including that served up at the local tavern. His role is to tend and manage the property of the monastery, so it is not surprising that the tale he tells will involve the whims of fortune. He is also said to be fat and happy, which stands in stark contrast to the morose tone of his tale.

The Monk's Prologue

After he recites the tedious debate that is the Tale of Melibee, the Host requests of the Monk a merry tale to cheer everyone up. He also remarks that the clergy seems an ill-fitting choice for the rotund Monk, who appears handsome and content, and well able to father children.

The Tales

Not exactly complying with the Host's request for a cheery tale, the Monk instead launches into a long series of tales called exempla (singular: exemplum): stories designed to make a point through a short story as an example. The Monk declares that he has a hundred such exempla back in his cell, but that this presentation will be brief. He then proceeds to tell the group about the downfall of many famous and wealthy men, many of them characters from the Bible or antiquity that would be well-known to a large portion of the group.

Included in the series are such figures as the Biblical first man Adam, who fell from God's grace and hence began all ill fortunes of the human race. Also described is the fall of Lucifer, who only became the guardian of the Underworld because of his pride in the face of God's glory. Banished from Heaven, he and other fallen angels created what became the Christian Hell tormenting the imaginations of believers.

Fallen Angel
Lucifer

Other figures described in tragic detail by the Monk are from ancient myths, such as the superhero Hercules. Killer of many wild and ferocious foe, Hercules died after being given a blood-soaked cloak which tears his flesh. He builds his own funeral pyre and ends his life tragically.

Hercules Fighting a Centaur
Hercules

Some of the stories concern wealthy men of more contemporary origins, such as Ugolino, Count of Pisa. One 1954 translation by R. M. Lumiansky, still in use, gives only this particular tale in full as an example of the others told by the Monk. The unfortunate Count was locked in a tower to die after being falsely accused by the Bishop. With him were his three small children. They subsisted miserably on very little food and water until, one by one, the children died. Finally, the Count succumbed to starvation as well and died lonely and broken in the tower.

In total, the Monk relates seventeen of these tedious and tragic exempla with the depressing message that Fortune is fickle. No matter how high born, strong, intelligent, or brave one is, the Monk seems to tell us that all is for nought. Of course, we know that everyone dies. In the age of the Plague, inefficient medicine, and unsanitary conditions, the travelers all were well-acquainted with death as well. But the Monk's purpose goes beyond just bringing attention to death. All of his heroes die tragically, sometimes painfully, and without sympathetic assistance: Fortune is against them.

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