The Canterbury Interlude and Merchant's Tale of Beryn: Introduction

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The Canterbury Interlude and Merchant's Tale of Beryn: Introduction

The Northumberland manuscript, executed after the middle of the fifteenth century, offers a specialized arrangement of The Canterbury Tales in which a lengthy Interlude has been inserted describing the pilgrims' arrival in the city of Canterbury, their visit to the shrine of St. Thomas in the cathedral, their overnight stay at a local inn, the Pardoner's misadventures with a cunning tapster, and the party's departure the next morning for the return to London. At this point the Host invites the Merchant to tell The Tale of Beryn (his second offering in this collection) as the initial tale for the homeward journey, to be followed by Chaucer the pilgrim with Melibee (his second offering, separate from Sir Thopas), the Monk, the Nun's Priest, the Manciple, and finally the Parson. The entire arrangement, that is, has been altered and enlarged to fulfill the design of the round trip projected in the General Prologue (Bowers 1985, 27-38). Unfortunately, the manuscript itself is missing pages at the end, so we do not know whether this enterprising collection might also have included a return to the Tabard Inn for the Host's verdict on the tale of "best sentence and moost solaas."

The anonymous author of the Interlude reveals a knowledge of The Canterbury Tales more intimate and wide-ranging than even Lydgate's. He was familiar with the General Prologue and the fabliau tales of Fragment I as well as the later performances of the Friar, the Summoner, the Merchant, the Canon's Yeoman, and the Pardoner (Bashe; Kohn; Winstead). Chaucer's pilgrims have been revived with considerable ingenuity and charm, behaving much as we would expect, or veering in directions we find comically inappropriate. Who would have expected the Wife of Bath to prefer sitting in a kitchen garden with the Prioress to exploring the town?

Episodes tracking the Pardoner's overnight escapade with Kit the Tapster are offered in cross-cut fashion to form a fabliau adventure, somewhat like the one told by the Reeve (Darjes and Rendall). Chaucer's Pardoner, that magnificent grotesque, seems to have been the one pilgrim who lingered most strongly in the memory of the fifteenth-century audience. Here, however, he possesses both a sexual potency and a heterosexual inclination, as well as a temperance in drinking ale, at odds with what modern readers have been led to expect (Curry 54-70; McAlpine; Bowers 1990). Throughout the Pardoner's failed attempts to romance and rob the tapster, when he ends up instead beaten, bloodied, and shivering all night in the dog's kennel, we may be so distracted that we fail to notice what else the continuator has totally omitted from his portrayal. Nowhere is there the slightest reference to the Pardoner as a self-enriching purveyor of indulgences and exploiter of sham relics. It is as if such crooked practices do not even merit mentioning in the holy city of Canterbury, where a visit to the authentic relics of St. Thomas earned a plenary indulgence for the pilgrim - and where the corrupt Pardoner justly deserved to be swindled, beaten, and sexually humiliated.

The Tale of Beryn is absolutely appropriate as an offering from the Merchant - more so, really, than the tale given him by Chaucer - since its hero is a young nobleman who chooses to be a merchant instead of a knight, only to encounter a series of storms and legal entrapments that would have been the real-life nightmare of any medieval merchant. In Thomas More's Utopia (1516), the citizens of the ideal nation puzzled over exactly the hazards encountered by Beryn: "when the merchants of one country are subjected to unjust persecution in another country under the pretense of justice, either under cover of iniquitous law or the manipulation of good laws." The French source-work Bérinus (ed. Bossuat) has been reduced and crafted in such a way as to emphasize these legal abuses, so much so that Green (1989) has proposed that the work was primarily a satire on contemporary problems with "law merchant," while Tamanini (40-48) suggested the author might have been a lawyer writing for an audience at one of the Inns of Court.

The larger and more significant an anonymous literary work, the more pressing becomes the question of authorship. A Latin couplet at the end of The Tale of Beryn says the work was translated by a "son of the church of St. Thomas" (Filius ecclesie Thome), evidence that would seem to contradict Tamanini's claims for a lawyer. Judging from the Southeastern dialect and the precision of local references, Furnivall (p. vii) long ago decided that the author was most likely a Canterbury monk. Despite the enticing suggestion from Green (61-62) that the author might have been Thomas Astell - rector of St. Thomas the Martyr in Winchelsea, a student of civil law at Oxford, and a kinsman of Henry Chichele, archbishop of Canterbury - the evidence marshaled by Brown (148-60), particularly the author's detailed knowledge of pilgrim rituals at Canterbury, points more persuasively to a Christ Church monk charged with custodial responsibilities for the cathedral's shrine of St. Thomas. If so, this monk had a much wider scope and keener eye than Lydgate for the pilgrims' high jinks before and after their visits to the shrine. Nonetheless, the special bias of his order would account for his aggressive hostility toward the Pardoner, whose sale of indulgences would have represented a serious threat to those Benedictines responsible for promulgating and sustaining the cult of St. Thomas.

The work's date offers a further problem. Since the Northumberland manuscript is much later than the Beryn text that it alone preserves, internal evidence must be used as the basis for speculation. A reference to the recent devastation of Winchelsea and Rye led Tamanini (73-76) to suggest a date as early as the 1390s, clearly too early for the author to have known Chaucer's final work as well as he did. Since the poetry shares a certain amount of vocabulary with Mum and the Sothsegger, completed between 1403 and 1406, Pearsall (1977, 298) proposed c. 1410 as the date of composition for Beryn. The Canterbury Interlude itself - which may have been written later than the tale it prefaces - has been plausibly connected by Brown (152-53) with the year 1420, which was the most recent Canterbury jubilee celebrated every half-century since the martyrdom of St. Thomas in 1170. This was a great money-making "tourist" event as well as a prime occasion to reassert the validity of pilgrimage rituals against the Lollards. It is therefore tempting to believe that the 1420 jubilee provided this monastic author, as well as John Lydgate, with the religious occasion for reviving Chaucer's literary pilgrimage to Canterbury.

The Text

Though preserved only in Northumberland MS 455 (fols. 180a-235a), dated c. 1450-70, this 4022-line section appears to have been composed considerably earlier. Removed from its original by as much as half a century, this transcription of a text by an otherwise unknown author offers a number of editorial challenges.

Furnivall in his edition for the Chaucer Society (1887), later reissued by EETS (1909), undertook a radical restoration of the text with the aim of improving the verse by supplying "missing" syllables, words, and phrases; where lines appear to have been omitted by the scribe, the editor even undertook to compose his own speculative replacements. I have rejected the aims of such a reconstruction, since it is not clear that the Beryn poet originally executed verses with the strict regularity assumed by Furnivall or adhered to grammatical practices deemed correct according to familiar Chaucerian standards. I have therefore been very conservative in emending only those readings that seem to be the results of scribal mistakes, many of them already detected by Furnivall and Vipan (1909) and Tamanini (1969). For example, the Northumberland scribe was particularly given to c/t confusion and error by anticipation of copy.

In respect to the accidentals, my approach has been informed by Tanselle's discussion (1983) of single-manuscript editing of medieval texts when a unique copy is accorded the status of copy-text. The term copy-text normally refers to the physical copy chosen by an editor from among several candidates because it most faithfully represents the author's practice in regard to spelling, punctuation, capitalization and other such features classed as accidentals. According to Greg's influential "rationale" (1950), the editor then establishes the substantives by separate methods, letting the readings of the copy-text stand whenever there is no compelling reason to alter them. The case of Beryn is all too common in the annals of medieval literature, since the unique surviving text of the poem in the Northumberland manuscript, so much later than the original, offers no authority in representing the original in regard to accidentals. Thus it does not qualify as a copy-text, although an editor might perforce treat it as such simply because there is no other candidate. Working with Hoccleve's Regement of Princes, Greetham (1985) has proposed ways in which the editor of a medieval text can free himself from this "tyranny of the copy-text" in regard to accidentals when means are available for establishing practices closer to the author's original.

Because The Tale of Beryn survives within the larger context of the Northumberland Canterbury Tales copied by the same scribe, it is possible to analyze the neighboring texts, specifically The Canon's Yeoman's Tale and The Summoner's Tale, to identify spellings and other orthographic practices which consistently deviate from Chaucer's usages and are therefore likely the copyist's. Kane (1989) has used a similar method to form a "profile" of the immediate scribe of the G Prologue to Chaucer's Legend of Good Women by examining the unique unoriginal variants of Cambridge University Library [CUL] MS Gg.4.27 in that part of the poem where revision is not presumed, namely the Legend itself which survives in a superior line of transmission represented by the family of manuscripts designated as F (after Bodley MS Fairfax 16). Kane then uses this scribal profile to identify non-authorial features which might be removed from a subsequent edition of the G Prologue.

Proceeding on this distinction between the author's and the copyist's usus scribendi or "writing practice," I have implemented such alterations in spelling only when they have been confirmed by a secondary control, namely, the rhymes in the Interlude and Beryn couplets. The copyist often retained in the rhyme position a spelling that he altered to personal practice elsewhere in the text. Guided by the dual constraints of (1) the scribal profile in the surrounding Chaucer texts and (2) preservations of authorial usages in the rhyme-words, I have proceeded in a very conservative manner, for example, altering the ending -ir/-yr to -er/-re, the plural -is/-ys to -es, the past tense -id/-yd to -ed, and the third-person singular -ith/-yth to -eth. In accord with the classic concept of the copy-text, I have retained the Northumberland scribe's usages when a substitution cannot be supported by my twin criteria. For example, the rhymes lott/not (703-04) and not/spot (3465-66) argue for normalizing the negative nat > not throughout the text, but since the surrounding Canterbury text with the Chaucerian spelling nat does not confirm this change, I have retained the manuscript's use of nat. In short, I have not undertaken a wholesale restoration of the text, one that might otherwise have included retrieving forms belonging to the poem's original Southeastern dialect, as was proposed by Onions (1936) for the Owl and the Nightingale. However, I have taken liberties in normalizing proper names, which vary widely and sometimes erratically in the copyist's practice.

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