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Echoes of Communal Response in the Tale of Melibee

From: The Chaucer Review
Volume 42, Number 4, 2008
pp. 409-430 | 10.1353/cr.0.0000

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For generations the Tale of Melibee was the least popular of the Canterbury Tales. The great Victorian critic W. P. Ker sneeringly called it "a thing incapable of life, under any process of interpretation, a lump of the most inert 'first matter' of mediaeval pedantry."1 In 1909 John William Mackail wrote that Melibee is "enormously long besides being portentously dull";2 fifty-nine years later Trevor Whittock called it "an enormous bore."3 For C. David Benson, Melibee is "dull, lengthy, and somewhat suffocating,"4 while Helen Cooper writes that, although it is "a serious work," it is full of platitudes that "tumble out in an unceasing stream that overwhelms Melibee and audience alike."5 Brian S. Lee tells me that his former professor, Leslie F. Casson, warned his students that we ignore the Tale of Melibee at our peril—a warning which, Lee reports, did not stop Casson's students from subsequently ignoring it.6

A century of disdain for this "litel tretys" (VII 957),7 which, as many have observed, is not so little, has been recently contested by scholars who observe Chaucer's attention to a complex narrative structure, his deliberate use of proverbs to make the text more memorable, and his adaptation of power struggles, both judicial and domestic, to an issue which his contemporaries would have found relevant.8 Here I hope to demonstrate that Chaucer implicitly emphasizes Melibee's judicial and domestic debates by adding a stylistic layer to the text that invites a communal response of deliberation, argument, and debate. To emphasize this element of Melibee's stylistic construction, I will compare it to the Second Nun's Tale, which ostensibly divides its audience into two groups: the scholarly interpreter-readers who are asked to amend the work on the one hand, and, on the other, the lay hearers who are invited to listen to this saint's life.

While recent attention has revived interest in the lively debate of the Melibee,9 an entirely different group of apologists have claimed the tale is a sort of parody,10 although they have not addressed C. S. Lewis's warning that modern incredulity to sententiousness can probably find no analogue in Chaucer's world.11 More difficult still for a view of the tale as parody is Sharon Hiltz DeLong's plain observation that it "is simply too long to be either a parody or an intentionally dull piece intended as a characterization of its teller."12 To quote Lewis directly: "We must face the fact that Chaucer's audience could listen with gravity and interest to edifying matter which would set a modern audience sleeping or sniggering."13

It is in this evaluative tradition that Edward E. Foster postulates with all sincerity that in our opprobrium of the tale we might be "merely preserving a Medieval tradition and . . . Chaucer would have approved."14 He continues to suggest that Melibee might have been written to be leafed through and not to be read in its entirety.15 Foster's bafflement at the thought of anyone reading all of the work is met by Dolores Palomo's skepticism at the thought of it being read aloud to an audience—although she is, ironically, one of Melibee's few apologists. For her, "it strains credulity to imagine [Chaucer] reading all of [the Tale of Melibee] aloud."16 Foster is in agreement in spirit, although he does concede that "it is possible that the royals or the higher aristocracy had Melibee read to them as they rested or went about their business, but even if such a fanciful scenario occurred, it would still not be 'reading' in any meaningful, attentive sense."17 A curious counter-argument can be found in John Gardner's biography of Chaucer, whom he envisions performing Melibee as "a prank on the courtly audience that had assembled to hear him, expecting, as always, something vivid and delightful."18 It seems difficult for many modern readers to imagine Chaucer's contemporaries hearing Melibee read aloud with pleasure and interest.

The assumption that this tale is a literate work for reading, or for page-turning, as it were, seems to be largely based on...