The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Tale of Melibee Analysis

The Tale of Melibee is the longest of The Canterbury Tales, and the most dense. It may be that Chaucer, having been cut off midway through “The Tale of Sir Thopas,” gets his revenge by telling the longest, dullest prose tale he can think of. If we interpret Thopas running away from Sire Oliphaunt as Chaucer trying to get out of telling a story, then the Tale of Melibee represents Chaucer coming back in full armor.

The Tale of Melibee appears to be based on an earlier French piece, Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence by Renaud de Louens, written about 1336. De Louens’ work is itself a translation of a Latin work by Albertanus of Brescia, Liber consolationis et consilii, dating from about 1246. Given the purpose and context of the works on which it is based, some critics have hypothesized that Melibee is not supposed to be part of the Canterbury Tales at all, but a separate book written as advice for a young King Richard II.

The tale is a mass of arguments, each supported by a citation to some authority. Most of the authorities are classical Roman or Greek writers, Biblical citations, or church authorities who would likely have been familiar to Chaucer’s audience. However, many of the citations are inaccurate; for instance, Prudence frequently attributes various quotations to one author when in fact they came from an entirely different author. Melibee’s various advisors do the same thing. It is as if everyone is so eager to prove themselves right that nobody can be bothered to be accurate; as long as they sound good and win the argument, that’s all that matters.

Prudence herself provides another example of the patient, long-suffering wife, like we’ve seen in Griselde and Constance. Like Constance, her name stands for her predominant quality, as does Sophie’s (“Sophia” is Greek for “wisdom”). Rather than being an active force in the story, Prudence exerts a passive influence on the other characters, particularly Melibee himself.