The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Monk's Tale Summary

At the end of the Tale of Melibee, the Host says (again) that he wishes his wife could hear these stories about good, patient women; his wife, he explains, is a bad-tempered, shrewish woman. He then asks the Monk to tell a story, but not without first making a couple of jokes at the Monk’s expense. The Monk takes the joking well, then offers to tell some of the hundred tragedies he knows by heart.

The Monk’s Tale itself is actually a collection of tragedies, all of which share the same moral: people should not trust in prosperity, but remain on their guard, because Fortune constantly changes.

The first tale is that of Lucifer, an angel who fell from heaven and descended into hell. The second is that of Adam and Eve and how they were driven from Paradise after eaten the forbidden fruit.

The Monk spends a bit more time on the story of Samson, who killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, then prayed to God to send him a drink of water. A well sprang from the jawbone. Samson, we are told, could have conquered the entire world were it not for his dalliance with Delilah; when he told Delilah that the source of his strength lay in the fact that his hair had never been cut, she then lured him to sleep and cut off his hair. Samson’s enemies were then able to seize him, put his eyes out, and imprison him in a temple. Eventually, Samson’s hair grew back and with it, his strength; he eventually pushed down the pillars of the temple, killing himself and everyone inside.

Next is the tragedy of Hercules, who was stronger than any other man, but who was defeated when he put on a poisoned shirt given to him by Deianera.

The tales of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and Balthasar, his son, are told together. Nebuchadnezzar built a large gold statue and ordered his subjects to pray to it or be burned alive. When Daniel refused, however, Nebuchadnezzar starting raving until God restored him to sanity. Balthasar, meanwhile, held a feast for a thousand lords, at which he served wine out of sacred vessels. While everyone was partying, they saw an armless hand writing on the wall. Daniel warned Balthasar that his kingdom would be destroyed by the Medes and the Persians. The moral of the story, according to the Monk, is that Fortune makes friends with people before destroying them.

Next comes the tale of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, who refused to marry. She was eventually forced to marry Odenathus, but refused to sleep with him except as often as was absolutely necessary to get pregnant. When Odenathus died, Zenobia was paraded through Rome bound in chains.

King Pedro of Spain was thrown off his throne by his brother and died trying to reclaim it. Peter, King of Cyprus, ruined his kingdom and was murdered for it. Bernabo Visonti was wrongly imprisoned; Ugliono of Pisa was imprisoned after losing in a rebellion started by Ruggieri, the bishop of Pisa, and starved to death along with his son and nephews. Nero killed himself after it became clear he would be assassinated for his cruelty. Holofernes got his head cut off by Judith as he slept after he ordered his subjects to worship Nebuchadnezzar. Antiochus Epiphanes committed crimes against the Jews, for which God punished him with an infestation of maggots. Alexander the Great was poisoned by his own children; Julius Caesar had Pompey murdered and was in turn murdered by Brutus and Cassius. Croesus, king of Lydia, was hanged for his pride.

The Monk is eventually interrupted by the Knight, who says he has had enough of tales about people falling from high places and would rather hear a tale about someone climbing from the bottom to the top.

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