Notes – The Monk

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Notes – The Monk



The best proof that Chaucer’s sketch of the hunting monk is not exaggerated is the fact that all the chief points he mentions are to be found in the articles of the ‘Visitation of Selborne Abbey’ held by William of Wykeham, as Bishop of Winchester, in 1387, i.e. within a year, or two at the most, of the date when Chaucer must have written his Prologue. [The articles are printed in full in an Appendix to Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, and summarised in his text, from which we may be content to quote. Thus for the whole character of the Monk, cp. White’s “In Item eleventh the good bishop is very wroth with some of the Canons, whom he finds to be professed hunters and sportsmen, keeping hounds, and publicly attending hunting-matches. These pursuits, he says, occasion much dissipation, danger to the soul and body, and frequent expense; he, therefore, wishing to extirpate this vice wholly from the convent, ‘radicibus extirpare,’ does absolutely enjoin the canons never intentionally to be present at any public noisy tumultuous huntings; or to keep any hounds, by themselves or by others, openly or by stealth, within the convent or without.” The penalty for each offence was to be two days fasting on bread and beer. The sixth article “mentions that several of the canons are found to be very ignorant and illiterate, and enjoins the prior to see that they be better instructed by a proper master,” and the thirty-fourth bids them to sit in the cloister and read the Scriptures (cp. 11. 104 sq.). In the eighty-sixth article the canons are accused of refusing to accept of their statutable clothing year by year and of demanding a certain specified sum of money, presumably in order to buy with it what clothes they pleased. In the twenty-ninth the result of this system is seen in the prohibition of “foppish ornaments and the affectation of appearing like beaux with garments edged with costly furs (cp. 1. 193 sq.), with fringed gloves, and silken girdles trimmed with gold (cp. our Monk’s gold pin) and silver.” In the twenty-sixth the canons are severely reprimanded for appearing publicly in fancy boots, “contra consuetudinem antiquam ordinis supradicti in perniciosum exemplum et scandalum plurinorum,” so that the care which the monk bestowed on his ‘bootes souple’ (1. 203) was probably misapplied. Lastly we find the case of outriders, such as he was (1. 166), dealt with in the ninth article, which complains that ” some of the canons are given to wander out of the precincts of the convent without leave; and that others ride to their manors and farms under pretence of inspecting the concerns of the society, when they please, and stay as long as they please. But they are enjoined never to stir either about their own private concerns or the business of the convent without leave from the prior: and no canon is to go alone, but to have a grave brother to accompany him.”]

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165. for the maistrie, above all others. [Flügel (452) compares Hoccleve, Govern. 23:

“When I was yonge I was ful recheles

Proude, nice and ryotous for the maystrye.”]

166. An outridere. See above, and cp. Shipman’s Tale (B 125256):

‘This noble monk, of which I yow devyse

Hath of his abbot, as hym list, licence,—

By cause he was a man of heigh prudence,

And eek an officer,—out for to ryde

To seek his graunges and hise bernes wyde.”

‘ Outrider’ appears to have been an official designation title for the monk who had to look after the convent estates.

      that lovede veneris. If the satirists and reformers of Chaucer’s time can be trusted, the love of hunting and horses had infected not merely the monks, but the clergy of every rank. [Wyclif complained that “curatis hav fatte hors with gaye sadlis and bridelis” and that “the more that a curat hath of pore mennys goodis the more comunly he wastith in costy fedynge of houndis and hautfis,” while of prelates he says that they ‘ride with foure score hors, with harneis of siluer & gold.’ (For references and other quotations see Flügel, p. 455 sq.)}

170. Gynglen, i.e. from the bells on the harness, which a hunting monk would think made a much pleasanter noise than the ‘chapel belle’ of the next line.

172. Ther as this lord was kepere of the celle: a ‘cell’ was a minor religious house dependent on a greater one, and was sometimes used as a kind of convalescent home. [Thus the great Abbey of S. Albans had a cell at Redburn, four and a half miles off, of which Dr. Horstmann writes (Introduction to Nova Legenda Anglie, p. xi.), ‘it served as a place of recess for sick monks to receive the benefit of ease and fresh air. Abbot Richard Wallingford (1326-55) ordained that three monks should always be here on duty for one month and then be relieved by three others.’ But in many cells there was no such time-limit and life at a cell was so much easier than at a well-governed great monastery that stories are told of monks who had contrived to stay on at a cell for several years asking, when they came back, whether the monastery were not under an altogether different ‘rule.’]

173. The reule of seint Maure or of seint Beneit: St. Benedict founded the first monastery of his order at Monte Cassino (halfway between Naples and Rome) about A.d. 530. S. Maurus was one of his earliest disciples and introduced the Benedictine rule into France.

175. This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace. Instead of telling us that the Monk left these particular old things to go their own way, Chaucer tells us that it was the Monk’s practice to disregard old things, and we see that these went with the rest. [Dr. Fliigel quotes a close parallel from Gower’s Vox Clamantis, IV. c. 7 :

“Nil modo Bernardi sancti vel regula Mauri

Confert, commonachis displicet immo novis.”]

176. And heeld after the newe world the space: Professor Skeat takes ‘space’ as meaning ‘course’ (Lat. spatium) and translates ‘held his course in conformity with the new order of things.’ It seems at least possible that Chaucer uses ‘the space’ adverbially for ‘in the meantime’ (cp. ‘and born hym weel, as of so litel space,’ 1. 87) and ‘heeld’ absolutely, in the sense of ‘kept on his way.’

177. He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen: the text ‘that seith that hunters beth nat hooly men,’ for which the monk did not care the value of a hen that had lost its feathers, has not been found. [In the Decretals of Gregory IX. a condemnation of hunting is followed by the text 3 Tim. ii. 4 : ‘No soldier on service entangleth himself in affairs of this life,’ etc.; but there must be something much nearer than this.]

179. whan he is cloysterles: ‘Cloysterles’ is the reading of the Harleian Ms., as against the ‘recchelees’ of the six texts. Professor Liddell says that ” ‘recchelees’ seems to have a peculiar meaning here, ‘careless of regulations’ (it has been proposed to read ‘ reuleles’), so that Chaucer has to explain what he means in vv. 181, 182,” and that in view of this explanation no emendation is needed. Dr. Skeat, on the other hand, points out that “a careless monk is not necessarily a monk out of his cloister,” and that the Harleian reading “solves the difficulty.” [If there were not good reason to believe that the Harleian Ms. records some of Chaucer’s second thoughts, we should have to stand by ‘recchelees,’ as no scribe would have been likely to have altered ‘cloysterles’ if he had found it in his text. But it seems quite possible that Chaucer himself substituted for ‘recchelees’ the coined word ‘cloysterles,’ which he had not at first thought of, and which comes much nearer to a translation of the proverb, leaving 1. 181, because ‘cloisterless’ is rather too strong, since it might mean a monk who has got no cloister, not merely one who strays from it.]

180. Is likned til a fissh that is waterles. ‘This passage is attributed by Gratian to a Pope Eugenius: Sicut piscis sine aqua caret vita, ita sine monasterio monachus‘ (Tyrwhitt). It has been traced back to as early a date as the fourth century. Both Wyclif and Gower quote it. [It is noteworthy, perhaps, that while in the Vox Clamantis Gower writes: ‘Non foris a claustris monachus, neque aqua fore piscis,’ which makes wholly for ‘cloysterles’ in 1. 179; in his Mirour he writes (20846 sqq.):

“tout ensi comme le piscoun

En l’eaue vit tant soulement,

Tout autrecy Religioun

Prendra sa conversacioun

Solonc la reule du covent

El cloistre tout obedient:

Car s’il vit seculierement

Lors change la condicioun

Del ordre qu’il primerement

Resceut, dont pert au finement

Loer [the reward] de sa professioun,”

where the important ‘in the cloister’ of the sixth line is so wrapped round with the general idea of obedience to rule as to ofter some parallel to ‘ recchelees.’]

185. Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure. Few monasteries in Chaucer’s days possessed specially built libraries in which the monks could read. Such libraries were added both to monasteries and colleges in the fifteenth century. In Chaucer’s time the monks still read their books in the cloister, where each of them had his ‘carrill,’ or reading-desk, in a separate arch. See The Care of Books, by J. W. Clark, Chap. II.

186. Or swynken with his handes and laboure, As Austyn bit? The peculiar idea of activity attached to the Augustinian rule is altogether a matter of tradition. [The famous Rule itself is but part of a letter written by S. Augustine, when Bishop of Hippo, to a convent of nuns in his diocese, in which he gives them advice as to the manner and spirit in which they should conduct themselves ‘as persons settled in a monastery.’ This very vagueness, however, as contrasted with the detailed code of S. Benedict, caused the so-called Rule of S. Augustine to be adopted by numerous new religious orders, and traditions sprang up around it of which the stress laid on the union of the religious life and active work was the chief. See ‘The Rule of S. Augustine,’ by E. Speakman in Historical Essays, by Members of the Owens College, Manchester, 1902.)]

190. Grehoundes he hadde. Cp. note on ‘The Monk,’ the Bishop’s 11th Article. The Ellesmere picture shows two of these greyhounds, but unluckily there is not room for them on this page.

194. With grys. Cp. note on ‘ The Monk,’ the Bishop’s 29th Article.

196. of gold…a curious pyn. Of course a monk had no right to wear gold ornaments, and the ‘love-knot’ in the pin was an additional crime.

206. A fat swan—the great medieval delicacy.


These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.


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