Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Parson's Prologue. - Notes to the Canterbury Tales (Works vol. 5)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
The Parson’s Prologue. - Geoffrey Chaucer, Notes to the Canterbury Tales (Works vol. 5) 
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous manuscripts by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899). 7 vols. Vol. 5.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Parson’s Prologue.
1.maunciple, manciple; see the last Tale. But there is no real connexion between this Group and Group H. It is most likely that the word maunciple was only inserted provisionally.
When the Manciple had told his Tale, it was still only morning; see H. 16, and the note. The Pilgrims, however, had not far to go. Perhaps we may suppose that they halted on the road, having a shorter day’s work before them than on previous occasions, and then other Tales might have been introduced; so that the time wore away till the afternoon came. It is clear, from l. 16, that the Parson’s Tale was intended, when the final reversion should be made, to be the last on the outward journey. Whatever difficulties exist in the arrangement of the Tales may fairly be considered as due to the fact, that the final revision was never made.
4.nyne and twenty. In my Preface to Chaucer’s Astrolabe (E. E. T. S.), p. lxiii, I have explained this passage fully. In that treatise, part ii. sections 41–43, Chaucer explains the method of taking altitudes. He here says that the sun was 29° high, and in ll. 6-9 he says that his height was to his shadow in the proportion of 6 to 11. This comes to the same thing, since the angle whose tangent is is very nearly 29°. Chaucer would know this, as I have shewn, by simple inspection of an astrolabe, without calculation.
5.Foure, four p.m. Many MSS. have Ten, but the necessity of the correction is undoubted. This was proved by Mr. Brae, in his edition of Chaucer’s Astrolabe, pp. 71–74. We have merely to remember that tenp.m. would be after sunset, to see that some alteration must be made. Now the altitude of the sun was 29°, and the day of the year was about April 20; and these data require that the time of day should be about 4 p.m. Tyrwhitt notes that some MSS. actually have the reading Foure, and this gives us authority for the change. Mr. Brae suggests that the reading Ten was very likely a gloss upon Foure; since four o’clock is the tenth hour of the day, reckoning from 6 a.m. The whole matter is thus accounted for.
10.the mones exaltacioun, the moon’s exaltation. I have discussed this passage in my Preface to Chaucer’s Astrolabe, (E. E. T. S.), p. lxiii. Of course Chaucer uses exaltation here (as in other passages) in its ordinary astrological sense. The ‘exaltation’ of a planet is that sign in which it was believed to exert its greatest influence; and, in accordance with this, the old tables call Taurus the ‘exaltation of the Moon,’ and Libra the ‘exaltation of Saturn.’ These results, founded on no reasons, had to be remembered by sheer effort of memory, if remembered at all. I have no doubt, accordingly, that Chaucer (or his scribes) has made a mistake here, and that the reading should be ‘Saturnes,’ as proposed by Tyrwhitt. The sentence then means—‘Therewith Saturn’s exaltation, I mean Libra, kept on continually ascending above the horizon.’ This would be quite right, as the sign of Libra was actually ascending at the time supposed. The phrase ‘I mene Libra’ may be paralleled by the phrase ‘I mene Venus’; Kn. Tale, 1358 (A. 2216); see also Group B. 1860, 2141. alwey, continually, is common in Chaucer; see Clerkes Tale, E. 458, 810. gan ascende, did ascend, is the opposite to gan descende; Clerkes Tale, E. 392. It is somewhat remarkable that the astrologers also divided each sign into three equal parts of ten degrees each, called ‘faces’; mentioned in Chaucer’s Astrolabe, ii. 4. 39, and in the Squieres Tale, F. 50. According to this arbitrary scheme, the first 10 degrees of Libra were called the ‘face of the moon,’ or ‘mones face.’ This suggests that Chaucer may, at the moment, have confused face with exaltation, thus giving us, as the portion of the zodiac intended, the first ten degrees of Libra.
I doubt if the phrase is worth further discussion. For further information, see my Preface to Chaucer’s Astrolabe (as above); and, for an ingenious (but impossible and unconvincing) theory, offered in explanation of the whole passage, see Mr. Brae’s edition of the same, p. 74. Most unfortunately, more than one attempt has been made to fix the date of the Canterbury Tales, by adopting as the true reading the phrase ‘In mene Libra,’ and then pretending that the moon itself (not its exaltation) was ‘in the middle of Libra.’ But this reading is evolved out of a mistake in MS. Hl., which (after all) has not In mene, but In mena (!); neither does In mene mean ‘in the middle.’ All calculations founded on this rotten basis are necessarily worthless.
16. This means that the Parson’s Tale was meant to be the last one on the outward journey. Unfortunately, there lack a great many more tales than one, as the matter really stands.
26. ‘Unpack your wallet, and let us see what is in it.’ In other words, tell us a story, and let us see what it is like.
32. See 1 Tim. i. 4, iv. 7; 2 Tim. iv. 4.
42.Southren. Nearly all alliterative poems are in the Northern or West-Midland dialect, as opposed to the East-Midland dialect of Chaucer, which approaches the Southern dialect. Still, it is the Parson himself, not Chaucer, who says he is a Southerner; though perhaps the poet meant, naturally enough, to tell us that he was himself resident in Kent (probably at Greenwich). The dialect of Kent was Southern. Many Southern forms occur in Gower.
43.rum, ram, ruf are of course nonsense words, chosen to represent alliteration, because they all alike begin with r. In most alliterative poetry, the number of words in a line beginning with a common letter is, as Chaucer suggests, three.
The word geste here means no more than ‘tell a story,’ without reference to the form of the story. It is, however, worth noting that one very long alliterative poem on the siege of Troy, edited by Panton and Donaldson (Early English Text Society), bears the title of ‘Gest Hystoriale.’ The number of distinctively Northern words in it is very considerable.
I think that this line has been forced by some out of its true meaning, and made to convey a sneer against alliterative poetry which was by no means intended. Neither Chaucer himself nor his amiable parson would have spoken slightingly of other men’s labours. The introduction of the words rum, ram, ruf conveys no more than a perfectly good-humoured allusion. That this is the true view is clear from the very next line, where the Parson declares that ‘he holds rime but little better.’
The most interesting question is—why should Chaucer allude to alliterative poetry at all? The answer is, in my view, that he distinctly wished to recognise the curious work of his contemporary William, whose Vision of Piers the Plowman had, by this time, passed, as it were, into a second edition, having been extremely popular in London, and especially amongst the lower classes. The author was not a Southerner, but his poem had come to London, together with himself, before 1377.
In his play entitled The Old Wives’ Tale, Peele introduces a character named Huanebango who imitates the spluttering hexameters used by Stanyhurst in his translation of a part of Vergil’s Æneid, and afterwards says:—‘I’ll now set my countenance, and to her in prose; it may be, this rim-ram-ruf is too rude an encounter.’ He evidently borrowed the expression from Chaucer.
I may further observe that Chaucer did not invent these nonsense words himself; he probably borrowed them from some French source. For, in Sigart’s Walloon Dictionary, we find these entries following.
‘Rim ni ram (ça n’a ni), cela n’a ni rime ni raison.
Rim-ram, protocole, formulaire: C’est toudi l’même rim-ram, c’est toujours la même chanson.’
Again, in the Dispute between the Soul and the Body (Vernon MS.), printed in Wright’s edition of Walter Mapes, p. 340, col. 2, we find:—
51. Alluding to Rev. xxi. 2. There is also here a direct reference to the opening sentences of the Persones Tale; see I. 79, 80.
57.textuel, literally exact in giving the text. The next line means ‘I only gather (and give you) the general meaning.’ Most quotations at this period were very inexact, and Chaucer was no more exact than others.
67.hadde the wordes. Tyrwhitt says—‘This is a French phrase. It is applied to the Speaker of the Commons in Rot. Parl. 51 Edw. III. n. 87: “Mons. Thomas de Hungerford, Chivaler, qi avoit les paroles pur les Communes d’Angleterre en cest Parlement,” &c.’ It means—was the spokesman.