My sone, spek nat – On the Ending of the Canterbury Tales


Thinking ahead to the two Chaucer classes I’ll be teaching this Fall, and back to a tweet from several years back:

The Maniciple’s Tale, the last of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, finishes with the Manciple remembering how his mother told him to watch what he says:

“ful ofte, for to muche speche / Hath many a man been spilt, as clerkes teche” (325-26; very often, because of too much speech, many men have been killed, as scholars teach us); if someone’s gossiping, pretend you’re deaf, said his mother (“dissimule as thou were deef, if that thou heere / a janglere speke of perilous materre”); a Flemish proverb, translated here, says “that litel janglyng causeth muchel reste” (a little chatter causes a lot of trouble) (and here I wonder if Chaucer’s wife, Philippa Roet, might have passed on this proverb to their children: Flemish must have been one of her languages).

The Manciple carries on reporting what his mother had told him for about 60 lines of poetry, roughly 25% of the tale’s entire length. It’s a long time to talk about not talking, and maybe an odd way to finish a work in which people do almost nothing but talk. It’s even odder as the last tale just before the Parson’s, an enormous treatise on confession, the original “talking cure.”

Me, I like to read the unlimited string of maternal proverbs as a lullaby. We should expect this bit to lull students to sleep. Why assume that medieval readers, especially medieval children, or even just medieval students, wouldn’t have had the same reaction? After all, proverbs are the stuff of medieval primers. And medieval primers are terrifically dull. Particularly when you’re 8 or so years old.

As we finish the Tales, droop, droop, and drop off, says Chaucer the mother to his readers.