The Plowman's Tale & The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

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 Plowman's Tale', a late inclusion to Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'', shows the reward of prayer, and how a devout monk was able to share his devotion with his congregation, to honor the life of Mary, Mother of God.

Becoming a Monk

Most editions of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales will not include 'The Plowman's Tale'. It is a late addition to this literary work, and in some circles, it is seen as apocryphal. In other words, there is some question regarding this tale's authenticity, so most editions don't include it. That being said, this tale does appear in a later manuscript of Chaucer, and details a brief story told by the Plowman.

The host of the group traveling to Canterbury asks the Plowman if he is ready to amaze the group with one of his tales. He seems to be modest as he discusses the attributes of Mary. He describes her as the 'sheld ys agayns the malice/Of the Fende', our defense against the devil. In addition, Mary is 'noble and gloryous/To alle mankynde'. With this praise of Mary, he sets the scene for his tale.

A Monk's Life

Not many people know what they want to do when they grow up. In 'The Plowman's Tale', a young boy is given the task of essentially saying 50 prayers to Mary each day. The young boy's father gives him this assignment 'in worchyp and honoure'. These daily prayers lead him to become a monk 'in the abbey of Seint Gyle'. Whether his father was preparing him for this occupation or not, the daily prayers see to be influential.

As a monk, he continues with his habit of daily prayers to Mary. When he has the time available to him after completing other religious duties, he goes to the chapel and prays 50 'Ave Mary, as was hys usage'. In all his time praying to Mary, there is no expectation of a response or reward. He prays in honor of what she does for mankind. This makes her appearance all the more rewarding.

Mary Pays a Visit

There came one day at the end of his prayers when an image appeared before the monk. Mary appears before him in a 'garnement/Selveles'. Despite Mary actually appearing before him, it is her sleeveless garment that the monk notices. He asks her about it and wonders why it is without sleeves. She answers him that it is what 'Thow hast me gevyn'. The garment is the result of his prayers. After answering, Mary presents a request to the monk.

She asks that he triple the number of prayers he says to her. Instead of fifty, she asks that he say one hundred and fifty, plus an Our Father for every ten prayers to Mary. She provides reasons for her request. She indicates that the first fifty prayers to her will be in remembrance of the angel Gabriel's visit to her. The second fifty are in honor of giving birth to the Lord, and the final fifty are in remembrance of Mary's ascension into Heaven. She leaves, but not before telling the monk that she will appear again on the next holiday.

Mary's Second Visit

The monk goes about doing as Mary asked, increasing the number of daily prayers to her, and making sure he honors her to the best of his abilities. The next holiday comes, and Mary returns. This time her garment has sleeves, which she attributes to the monk's efforts. She now has another request for the monk. She wants him to go forth and teach the parishioners the 'same lessoun unto myne honoure'. Mary requests that those in the monk's parish follow his example for prayer in her honor.

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