The Canterbury Tales: The Monk's Tale


The Canterbury Tales: The Monk's Tale

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O worthy Petro, king of Cipre, also,
That Alisandre wan by heigh maistrie,
Ful many a hethen wroughtestow ful wo,
Of which thyne owene liges hadde envie,
And for no thyng but for thy chivalrie
They in thy bed han slayn thee by the morwe
Thus kan Fortune hir wheel governe and gye,
And out of joye bring men to sorwe.
(Monk's Tale, 2391-98)


In its response to the Knight's Tale and in its discussion of Peter I of Cyprus (above), The Monk's Tale (MkT) reveals the versitility and wide reach of crusading themes in high. The tale has, however, garnered far less attention for its allusions crusading than has the General Prologue's description of the Knight or the Man of Law's TaleMkT, however, is directly linked to the Knight's Tale, because the Host—Herry Bailey—asks the Monk "if that ye konne, / somewhat to quite with the Knightes tale" once the Knight has completed his story. According to Terry Jones, the Monk provides an effective counter to the Knight's philosophy—one that Jones identifies as anti-Boethian—arguing that "the only happiness human beings can hope to achieve is to win glory and fame and to die when they are at the height of their powers" (393).  The Monk, he argues,
Replies by telling the stories of those who have placed their trust in worldly fame and power, and who have been brought low by Fortune's wheel. His "tragedies" embody the Boethian idea that human happiness cannot be found in wealth, power, or fame, and that those who seek to find it in these things will be disappointed. (393)
Additionally, Jones observes that the Monk not only counters the Knight's philosophy, but also "brings the examples right home to the very despots the Knight has himself served under; and what is more, he lays the blame for their downfall at the door of men like the Knight" (393).

For the purposes of this project, the most significant "despot" to which Jones alludes is Peter I of Cyprus, the monarch largely responsible for the Alexandrian Crusade of 1365. Peter had travelled throughout Europe between 1362-65 campaigning for a crusade, and successfully committed King John II of France, Amadeus count of Savoy, the Master of the Hospitallers, and the English Thomas of Beauchamp Earl of Warwick to the cause (Tyerman 832). It was Peter's idea to attack Alexandria—Egypt's main port—as a way of subduing Egypt before campaigning in the Levant. While the initial assault was a success, participating crusaders were ultimately criticized for the senseless violence they inflicted on the city's inhabitants, and for their prioritization of wealth over devotion to Jerusalem; they were ultimately forced to vacate Alexandria with their treasure shortly after they conquered it and give up on their aspirations of retaking the Holy Land.

Peter is presented as a ruthless but admirable figure in the works of both Phillipe de Mézières and Guillaume de Machaut, writers who may have influenced the depiction of the monarch in MkT. Phillipe was a contemporary of Peter I and participated in the Alexandrian crusade.  A "crusader himself of unquestioned Christian zeal" (Palmer, 16), he wrote the following which, according to R. Barton Palmer, "exemplifies" his view of the monarch:
Yet Peter, king of Jerusalem and Cyprus, from his youth did eagerly desire the liberation of his paternal heritage, the kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the liberation of the Holy City and its cleansing, proposing in his heart that if it ever might come about through God that the scepter of Cyprus should be his he would devote his own person, riches, and kingdom to the conquest of the Holy Land. (trans., Palmer, 18)
Alternatively, Machaut, in La Prise D'Alexandre, offers a more nuanced depiction of  this crusade and its leader. While his description of Peter as a virtuous crusader corresponds in certain ways to that of Phillipe's, Machaut acknowledges Peter's failings more directly. Nevertheless, despite his admission of Peter's despotism, Machaut still concludes his work with the following passage
He was so valiant—here's the main point
—That it would be honorable and fitting
For him to be numbered among the nine worthies,
And he'd make the tenth of their company,
For just as we've been saying
In all we've related about him,
Nothing made him stand out as much
As did honor—so saw every man.
And Mars favored and exalted him
So that he often sought out war
In which he found a hundred to his four.
Yet victory and honor were his,
And so, lords, if I honor him,
You should not think it strange. (415, ll.8850-8862)
Peter was ultimately murdered because of his despotism, and while Machaut in particular acknowledges this fact, the depiction of Peter in his and Phillipe de Mézières' works remains remarkably positive and heroic in nature. One can see much the same construction of Peter in the Monk's Tale, though it is also clear that the Monk seeks to tie his eventual fall to the machinations of Lady Fortune. He describes Peter as "worthy" and chivalrous, even stating that he was killed for his "chivalrie" rather than his despotic rule.

As Celia M. Lewis has observed, the Monk's reference to the Alexandrian crusade in his description of Peter of Cyprus—along with the naming of the same crusade in the General Prologue's description of the knight—"refer[s] to specific historical campaigns against the heathen and form[s] a site of Muslim-Christian contact in the Canterbury Tales" (353). Lewis points out that the Monk conveniently omits any reference to Peter's despotism and the fact that he was eventually killed because of it. She argues that
The discrepancy between the Monk's mention of Peter of Cyprus's heroism and Machaut's well-known literary version of the same life gestures towards chivalry's contradictions, yet also marks a divergence between the leader of a crusade and an individual participant— Chaucer's Knight—who we may assume has sought to realize the crusade ideal. (362)

Richard Neuse considers MkT a "somewhat disconcerting mixture of a kind of world chronicle and literary fiction" (415), and Helen Cooper observes that the tale takes on a "scattershot effect" showing that the rise and fall on Fortune's Wheel " can happen to anybody and everybody in high office" (428). The matter of crusading, however, is couched in this passage in almost entirely positive terms. Peter is "worthy" and captures the city with "heigh maistrie." Even his army's slaughtering of heathens (a massacre criticized even in Chaucer's time) is carefully reconstructed and presented as a chivalric action that provokes the jealousy of Peter's knights. This reconstruction of this crusade and its leader ultimately serves the larger purpose of the tale, which is to reflect on the fall of the those in power. The positive treatment of the crusade serves, then, to signal Peter's rise on the wheel of fortune while simultaneously anticipating his downfall.

In like fashion with the other biographic sketches provided by the Monk, the portrait of Peter reflects upon fate of a person in power, one who rises to great heights — in his case by way of crusading—but who falls from Fortune's Wheel as did so many other rulers before and after him. Thus, while Jones rightly observes the Monk's "response" to and countering of the theological underpennings of the Knight's Tale, it is ultimately difficult to see a subversion of crusading present in MkT, a work that seems to draw—either directly or indirectly—from the conspicuously reconstructed narratives of Peter's life (and the Alexandrian Crusade) provided by previous authors.

Cooper, Helen. "Responding to the Monk." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22 (2000): 425-433.

Lewis, Celia M. "History, Mission, and Crusade in the Canterbury Tales." Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Literary Criticism 42:4 (2008): 353-382.

Jones, Terry. "The Monk's Tale." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22 (2000): 387-397.

Neuse Richard. "They Had Their World as in Ther Time: The Monk's 'Little Narratives.'" Studies in the Age of Chaucer 22 (2000): 415-423.

Palmer, R. Barton. La Prise d'Alixandre. New York: Routeledge, 2002.