Tell-Tale Tales: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Hearts on Display


Chaucer’s title, The Canterbury Tales, is a bit of misnomer, as the college sophomores have been discovering this week. For all of the characters’ good intentions in pilgrimaging to St. Thomas A Beckett’s shrine to express their gratitude for surviving the plague, Chaucer’s plot gives almost no attention to Canterbury as a destination nor the journey there. Canterbury recedes as a frame of reference, giving way to a story-telling competition initiated by Harry Bailie, the host of the Tabbard Inn, who agrees to accompany the thirty pilgrims on their journey. He expects each traveler to tell two tales on the way there and two en route home (quite the audacious goal of 120 stories!), and he offers a free dinner back at the inn to the traveler who tells the best story of sentence (a serious inquiry) and solaas (pleasure).

But even within the storytelling competition, noble aspirations of paring the serious with the joyful get sidetracked, and the crew on the road to Canterbury begin to pit moral import against enjoyment; the tale tellers begin to take sides: stories of entente (intent) versus stories of game (game), and they are quick to turn their tales to “quit” or refute what they find too earnest or too frivolous in the stories of others, often, attacking one another with their stories. The host, therefore, gives most of his time to refereeing the ad hominems and rude interruptions, spending considerably less time evaluating the merits of the stories themselves.

The sophomores and I have carried on, reading a cluster of tales at war with one another to win—but all in disagreement over what would make a winning story. Should it be delight (“That was fun!”) or repartee (“Ouch, you sure owned him”) or surprise (“What in the world?!”) or conviction (Wow, that cut me to the quick!)? Or some combination? Baillie, the host, doesn’t elaborate much further; instead, the Wife of Bath, the Friar, the Summoner, and the Clerk offer their stories while we, the readers, weight them against one another with, what we feel, are unequal scales. Can the Summoner and Clerk really be competing in the same kind of story contest? How can we know who is joking and who is in earnest?

So, in class, we observe poetic form and track which stories use only rhyming couplets and which experiment with rhyme royale. We consider Chaucer’s description of each pilgrim for further evaluative criteria, and we compare the adaptations Chaucer made to his borrowed source materials when he sets particular stories in the mouth of certain characters.

Thus, while always on the lookout for a potential story-contest winner, the sophomores and I have found that we have mostly come to know Chaucer’s pilgrims by their stories. The act of telling tales is like opening a window on moral character, and The Canterbury Tales becomes discursive exploration of Jesus’s admonition in Luke 6: “Out of the heart the mouth speaks.” Given how Chaucer’s contemporaries like John Wycliffe, William Langland, and John Gower describe the moral decay rampant in the fourteenth-century church, we aren’t surprised, for example, that the majority of Chaucer’s ecclesial characters showcase greed, triteness, and hypocrisy. But this heart-to-mouth reality also provokes the conscience of reader. What story might we tell if called upon spontaneously to share a tale? What might it say about us?

Today on campus our undergraduates are getting some good heart-to-mouth practice. Today they compete in Interregnum, our annual college-wide, multi-genre competition of the arts. Marshalled in their respective houses of Elliot, Augustine, Dutton, Lewis, Perpetua, and Edwards, our students are telling their tales in drama, prose, poetry, and a range of visual arts. Our student life director, Cody Sandidge invites a host of judges to inveigh in this contest of wit and weight. In many respects, Interregum’s tethering of sentence and solaas, of the serious and the joyful, is not all that different from Chaucer’s original story-telling contest—with one notable exception.

Interregnum at Bethlehem College is in no way at odds with the rest of the work in our classrooms. It isn’t as though we are looking for a day of distraction from an-otherwise-important-but-tedious journey through the semester. We aren’t drumming up some anesthetizing amusement to help us survive until we make it to a holy destination. Rather Interregnum releases our students’ growing skill in observation, evaluation, feeling, or articulation to leaven a dozen genres. As our students compete in the skilled play that Interregnum asks of them, our school community get to enjoy both the stories and the deep godward affections beneath them. The art work on display in the Main Hall today discloses scores of student hearts who love the Lord sincerely and expansively. The stories they are performing up on the sanctuary stage go right to work on their audience’s hearts.

Betsy Howard, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Literature


Prayer Requests:

  1. Would you pray for us here in the third week of the semester as we read and discuss a wide range of texts and authors this semester that the Lord would be forming in us all vigorous and godly habits of mind and heart?
  2. Would you pray for our students both as they compete today and reflect on all their classmates have shared in word and form?
  3. Would you pray for rest and restoration for the many hands who so faithfully served at our Serious Joy Conference this week?
  4. Would you pray for Bethlehem College and Seminary’s Board of Trustees as they meet this coming week—for wisdom in the leading of this school?
  5. Would you pray for the full funding of the Serious Joy Scholarships needed to support this year’s students?